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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

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

Brief spells of inspiration

January 20, 2006

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
By William Finn, Rachel Sheinkin, Rebecca Feldman. Melbourne Theatre Company. Playhouse, Arts Centre, January 18. Tickets: $16-$79.60. Bookings: 1300 136 166. Until February 25.

WITH Melbourne in the throes of the Australian Open and theCommonwealth Games just around the corner, it was heartening to see a musical about and for butter-fingered bookworms. Not that a spelling bee is any less competitive than the showy games of brawn. Indeed, the tense word-by-word elimination rounds could rival any match-point on centre court.

Director Simon Phillips has managed to coax a galaxy of stars to this imported Broadway production, with Marina Prior as hostess and former Bee champion, and Magda Szubanski, Christen O'Leary and David Campbell aping the mannerisms of nerdy 12-year-olds trying to grasp the anarchic English language.

Each of the participants (a motley crew of chubby knees, speech impediments and school-yard neuroses) have their own quirks, highlighted by solo musical numbers with titles such as I'm Not That Smart, My Friend The Dictionary and I Speak Six Languages.

Four volunteers from the audience were also integrated into the proceedings, adding an inspired improvised feeling to the spell-a-thon.

The ensemble cast were of varying quality. As the cocky William Barfee, with his mucus membrane disorder and a magic foot used to spell out words, Szubanski was a delight. So too was O'Leary as the lisping, high-pitched and unfortunately named Logainne Schwarzandgrubeniere. Campbell's Chip Tolentino too, provided sniggers when his hormones resulted in an inconvenient protuberance, and Natalie O'Donnell's sad, insecure Olive made a sympathetic figure.

Prior's MTC debut was worth the wait, though her superior skills inadvertently put to shame the rest of the cast's singing ability. Tyler Coppin as the vice-principal and Bert Labonte as the comfort counsellor performed their roles well. Tim Wright and Natalie Mendoza didn't quite manage to inhabit their characters, however.

Set in the school gym, and with a live band in the background, The Spelling Bee is a sweet concoction. However, the cutesy concept of adults impersonating children as they tried to unravel tongue-twisters such as quokka, antihistamine and omphaloskepsis was a modest idea that was overstretched and subsequently strained to justify nearly two hours of running time.

Realising the thin plot, co-creators William Finn, Rachel Sheinkin and Rebecca Feldman fleshed it out by interweaving fantasy and flashback sequences which sometimes felt cloying or silly. Nonetheless this is an exuberant, family-friendly musical that shows the pressures for teenagers to succeed in any capacity, whether that be by kicking a ball around or by spelling crepuscule.