Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

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I sincerely hope every Durham student has plans to go see DULOG’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee this weekend, as it is, quite simply, F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C.

Having never really heard of the musical before, I was admittedly apprehensive as I walked up the steps to the Assembly Rooms, wary as to whether this “quirky” (the director’s own words) show would quite be my cup of tea.

It definitely was.

The sheer attention to detail was very impressive, with the whole of the theatre having been transformed into an American elementary school; posters adorned the walls, with messages about Cheerleading practice, the Principal’s notices for the week, and (of course) a patriotic flag.

The set was also very effective, similarly adorned with class posters, a set of bleachers, and a subtly witty sign acknowledging Fabio’s Bar, the show’s sponsors. The meticulousness of the technical directors (Tom Murton and Daniel Gosselin) was evident, with the vinyl flooring adding a very effective finishing touch.  I was suitably impressed before the show had even started.

Admittedly, I was caught slightly by surprise as the show did start; there was no real dimming of lights, Clare French simply strolled on to stage as her character Rona Lisa Peretti. This was a simple, yet clever touch, as it meant the audience felt very much like the real audience of a spelling bee, not watching a play in a dimmed room, but sitting in a fully lit school hall.

From then on in, I was hooked. The caricature characters were admittedly cliché, with the home-schooler, the one-with-two-dads, the one-with-no-show-parents, et cetera; yet, each had surprisingly touching moments that revealed something very honest behind their stylised personas.

To single one or two actors out is very difficult, as the cast were all unbelievably strong, yet credit is certainly due to Sophie Mcquillan in her swan-song role of Logainne SchwatzandGrubenierre. Outstandingly funny (with her signature walk, plaited pigtails, and exaggerated lisp), Mcquillan had firm characterisation from the very beginning, which she did not lose when singing the slightly toungue-in-cheek numbers from the show.

This was then matched by Russell Lamb’s endearingly geeky performance as Leaf Coneybear, swooping around stage in his cape and tie-dye t-shirt, completely realistic in his portrayal of a young boy who’s not at slow as people believe him to be.  He and must also be complimented on their hilarious portrayal of Logainne’s gay dads, one of the many faultless demonstrations of multi-roling done right.

Nevertheless, my favourite moment was almost certainly the beautiful duet in the ‘The I Love You Song’ between Rona Lisa Peretti (French) and Olive Ostrovsky (Isabelle Horler). The two actresses had amazingly pure, powerful voices that really transported the audience into Olive’s day-dreams about her mother, effortlessly conveying the emotion of the scene.

This does not even do justice to the rest of the talented cast, Sarah Silmani, , Russell Park, and Maxwell Spence, who each stole the show when given their moment.

My only comment could be that the actors should try and sustain their caricatures throughout; slips were minor, but still there were a few occasions where a characterisation would soften ever so slightly. Conversely, some of the actors definitely ‘grew’ into their parts as the play advanced; it would have really perfected their performance to see the strength in their final moments on stage, from the very beginning.

This leads me on to the band, ably led by Nick Fleet. To be perfectly honest, I barely noticed them. And this I mean as the very highest compliment! Their performance again seemed effortless, and obviously well-rehearsed, which is more than could be said for a number of West End shows that I have seen.

Sometimes there were a few issues with the clarity of dialogue or singing, as the band did occasionally over-power the performers, but this was not a significant enough issue to have a real impact on the audience’s enjoyment.  The choreography also meant that some lines were lost in a sea of jazz-hands and high-kicks, but I also cannot really fault Rebecca Meltzer (the choreographer), as she really captured the charm of the show in her routines.

I honestly don’t know what could have been added to this show to make it better. With free sweets, references to Wicked and The Book of Mormon, characters swinging on to stage, the odd melt-down, and some hilarious audience participation (don’t be scared, it’s all very structured), this production over-shot all of my expectations.  Director Simon Lynch took on a very big challenge with this show, but he (along with his cast and crew) ensured that every member of the audience left with a huge smile on their face.

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