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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

By Helen Thomson
January 20, 2006

Tony award-winning Broadway hit gets a local premiere with a wonderful cast.

The cast of 
The 25th Annual Putnam County
Spelling Bee.

The cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.


Music and lyrics by William Finn,Book by Rachel Sheinkin, conceived by Rebecca Feldman. Melbourne Theatre Company, directed by Simon Phillips. Running time: one hour and 45 minutes.

William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin (both were in this opening-night audience) have put together a show that provides a hilarious evening of entertainment, and also treats its characters with affection and respect.

We may be drawn into laughter at the fat boy with the mucous-membrane disorder (Magda Szubanski at her most endearing), or the kid who bombs out because of an unruly erection (David Campbell) or the kooky kid whose nerdy lack of style is expunged with one big, beautiful grin (Tim Wright), but we laugh with them, not at them.

Part of the show's charm (and there are films such as Myla Goldberg's Bee Season, and the Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound to add to the list of spelling dramas) is the fact that its participants are, almost by definition, not the average playground look-alikes or fashion followers. Their ability to spell amazingly difficult words, ones that only the eclectic English language could throw up, defines their difference in a society that more commonly rewards sporting prowess and conformity.

The singing demands are not great, and it is the words of the songs, fittingly, that really matter. Marina Prior, with her considerable vocal powers, is a great asset to the cast. As Rona Lisa Peretti, realtor extraordinaire and ex-spelling bee champion, she delightfully sends up the blonde chick on heels who generously showers her sex appeal on any male aged over 12. This even encompasses the teenager on parole whose community service order has made him the show's Comfort Counsellor (Bert Labonte), a serious responsibility when every heart but one will be broken on the way to a winner.

Yet each loser also comes away from the experience changed and consoled by self-knowledge. While there is considerable satirical scrutiny of the American obsession with winning at all costs, the children rise above parental pressure.Warm and fuzzy may be totally unfashionable, but this little Broadway musical about spelling is g-o-l-u-p-t-i-o-u-s (delicious to the uninitiated). Spelling bees may be foreign to Australian audiences, but they are game shows with class, drama, raging emotions, and the entrants are engagingly adolescent.

Logainne (Christen O'Leary) frees herself from the tyranny of her same-sex parents using her to prove their success as alternative role models. Marcy (Natalie Mendoza) finds failure can liberate her from child-prodigy shackles. Olive (Natalie O'Donnell, with the other outstanding voice in this cast), learns that absent parents are not necessarily uncaring ones.

Even the four audience members who are recruited before the show rose admirably to the occasion and raised many laughs, particularly when vice-principal Douglas Panch (Tyler Coppin) had to pull them into line.

Each participant has a solo number, and this ensures an alternation of interest and pace that lifts the show out of its game-show format into the musical, where character and theme are developed in song. Natalie O'Donnell's I Love You is outstanding, both in demonstrating her fine vocal range and developing the show's emotional depth.

Even the spelling bee itself is sent up, particularly hilariously when vice-principal Panch is asked to put the word to be spelt into a sentence. His utter failure to rise to the occasion, his obvious lack of understanding of the sometimes weird words' meanings, result in pedestrian exercises in obfuscation. The participants' good-natured refusal to take this dim-wittedness personally only endears them further to us.

In fact, the whole show is endearing, and sure to be a winner for the MTC.