The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Mon 20th – Sat 25th August 2018

reviews

Miles Jackson

at 20:08 on 20th Aug 2018

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Having won a plethora of awards for its initial run in 2005, 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee' has become a popular choice for musical theatre groups, with two different productions present at this year’s Fringe alone.

It’s easy to see why; Rachel Sheinkin’s book and William Finn’s lyrics provide a hilarious send-up of middle school malaise whilst the improvisatory nature of the show creates plenty of opportunities for amateur dramatists to put their own unique spin on it. Though somewhat held back by a few lacklustre performances and the occasional technical mishap, Honeycomb Productions’ interpretation of the piece is ultimately a sharply funny and tightly performed affair.

Depicting a spelling bee contest in an American middle school (amusingly inflated by the characters to an absurd significance), Tilda Shoul’s production makes the most of a large yet fairly sparse stage with its often stunning choreography. Numbers such as ‘Life is Pandemonium’ are not only very funny – featuring darkly comic lines such as "Life is random and unfair" – but also choreographed with a liveliness and verve that proves fantastically entertaining.

Unfortunately, a couple of the characterisations feel a touch too broad for their comedy to land, with Tom Carron’s and Georgia Stewardson’s characters falling flat - though in general the cast forcefully commit to the nonsensical stereotypes their characters embody. Yet it’s Stan Ford as Vice Principal Douglas Panch who’s the real standout.

Ford – serving as a kind of comptroller over the Spelling Bee – is the show’s MVP, offering cutting barbs and a beleaguered bemusement that never fails to get a laugh. I’m unsure as to what degree Ford’s wordplay was improvised but it provides near constant hilarity – his interactions with the audience are consistently excellent.

The show undermines its professional showmanship with some occasional technical hiccups, with distracting and unpleasant microphone pops plaguing the show’s opening half. Likewise, while the performers’ voices are uniformly excellent some of them appear to sacrifice audibility for quality of tone, and some of the lines are lost in the noise of the band.

On the whole however, 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee' is a pleasant experience, directed with vitality and well-acted with plenty of genuinely witty, pointedly political humour. Though the show is prevented from being truly great by some telltale signs of amateurism, it’s certainly one of the stronger student productions I’ve seen at the Fringe.

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Jasmine Silk

at 01:19 on 21st Aug 2018

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Bristol University’s production of ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ brings together all the heart and humour that made this award-winning musical so popular when it was first on Broadway in 2005.

The story focuses on seven young adolescents who are competing in the Putnam County Spelling Bee and their hopes, dreams, and concerns, which are all handled with brilliant comic timing a characterization. It is credit to the skill of the actors and the direction that every character is recognisable even when they are not speaking due to their distinctive physicality.

One of the best things about this show is that it will have you laughing all the way through – particularly at the one liners every time someone asks the teacher to use a word in a sentence. These are delivered brilliantly by Stan Ford as the slightly deranged Vice Principal Douglas. Douglas is balanced out by the three-time spelling bee winning moderator Rona, whose part played by Jen Statham, and Mitch Mahoney, played by Seun Oyeleye, and who are two of the most impressive singers in the whole show.

The character quirks and reactions are often shown in brilliantly performed songs, with equally as brilliant names, such as ‘My Unfortunate Erection (Chip’s Lament)’ or ‘Magic Feet’. These moments work well as the actors are not afraid to take their characters to the extreme, making them a lot of fun to watch. This is paired with choreography which brilliantly creates the worlds the kids are singing about and the ‘pandemonium’ of the Spelling Bee. Unfortunately, occasionally some of the effect of their performances and the whip smart lyrics were lost as the volume of the mics sometimes meant we couldn’t hear exactly what they were singing from where we were sat.

A song which stood out however was ‘The I Love You Song’, performed by Rachel Clements as Olive, as it moves away from the comedy in a heartfelt and heart-wrenching moment. Alongside her growing friendship with Barfée, a lovably nerdy character who suffers from a mucus disorder and regular name mispronunciation, played by Tommy Carron, is the emotional heart of the show.

These two characters are the perfect example of why the show works; while the characters are at times caricatures of whiz kids, they are also extremely endearing thanks to the skill of the acting and direction. It is the musical show to see for some heart-warming hilarity, and a great production of a Tony award winning musical piece most people have never seen before.

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