The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a tricky show. Adults playing a bunch of unlikable, precocious children with impossibly difficult words punctuating the musical numbers. It doesn’t sound like a great set up for the Just So Society’s autumn musical. However, Spelling Bee (directed by Taryn O’Connor) provided a light-hearted evening of fun.
It is important to say here that I have made my St Andrews stage debut. Now, this is not a thinly-veiled boast, nor a tangential point to this review. Rather, I stepped into the role of ‘Guest Speller’ for the evening: four randomly selected audience members become part of the competition, spelling words of varying levels of difficulty. Whereas I was given ‘Schmookie’ (still unsure how to spell it), another Speller was given ‘cow’, much to the anger not only of myself but the characters of the play. The improv skills of Catherine Haslam, playing the role of the compere Donna Panch, shone here, allowing her to somehow control four hesitant audience members and coerce multi-syllabled words from the competitors. Haslam seemed to be in complete control of proceedings throughout, the definitions and sentences composed when asked for further guidance highly amusing.
As in the improvised scenes, Spelling Bee was at its strongest during the musical numbers. In spite of a few off-key notes, perhaps due to casting to wrong voice types, generally the songs were well performed by the nine-person cast. There was a sense of an infectious energy from the cast during the songs, with the children springing up on one another’s shoulders or swinging off the benches they were to sit on. The stand-out moment of the play was, without a doubt, the I Love You Song, expertly navigated by Kate Kitchens, Struan Erlenborn, and Ayanna Coleman. The vocal dexterity of the three shone throughout the song, culminating in one of the touching moments of the play. Similarly, Woe Is Me, a catalogue of complaints with Logainne’s (Annie Newman) two fathers and her ‘BM’ (Birth Mother) was a high-energy, well-performed moment.
The problems lay in the scenes between songs. When the music stopped, the energy too dipped significantly. The characterisation that was created by the combination of music, dancing and spelling was not maintained throughout the straight scenes: characters lost their defining characteristics. Whereas Connor Powell’s Barfée got away with being an utterly bizarre character in his songs (Magic Foot being well performed), like many of the characters he simply became too much for the Barron space to contain between songs. O’Connor needed to decide whether, as with Powell and Newman’s characters, the children would become over the top stereotypes or, as with Erlenborn, Emma Seckel and Kitchens’, they were realistic children. A central problem – one not helped by the dip in energy – is that, in spite of the strength of the songs, the scenes without the songs are simply not as strong, so the production needs to do more to imbue them with energy and purpose. It was the lack of commitment in the scenes between songs that stopped the show from ever really becoming as energetic as the musical numbers (under the musical direction of Jack McMillian) suggested it would have been.
In spite of the differences between the actualisation of the children (that is whether they were stereotypes or realistic) on stage, the majority of the cast each managed to create strong characters. Jonathan Hewitt, playing a boy on the precipice of puberty (complete with an Unfortunate Erection) was particularly good at bridging the awkward gap between child and adulthood. Similarly, the commitment Erlenborn had to his character even when the events on stage were nothing to do with him was very strong. Clearly this was a cast that had been allowed to regress to childhood, allowing them even to stay in character during the interval.
As Coleman’s character remarks at the close of the play, she brings “competitive spelling to the masses”. As a British audience member, entirely unfamiliar (even a little bemused) by the notion of a spelling bee, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee not only allowed me to take part in my first spelling bee, but also ensured I will be humming complex combinations of letters under my breath for weeks to come. L-O-V-E-L-Y. Lovely.
Photo courtesy of the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Facebook Page.