The adult actors from local Bruiser Theatre Company in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are totally convincing as the younger characters they are playing. The minimal set – a gymnasium – has a quirky built-in emphasised perspective.
“All the children you see on stage are here because of their love of words.”
The children sitting on the benches include a few familiar faces – volunteers, don’t panic! – from the audience. The audience participation is free from humiliation and they're made into stars of the show. Based on last night’s performance, Basil McCrea may have a career in the Countdown dictionary corner if politics gets the better of him!
If you haven’t been to a spelling bee before you’ll soon pick up the pattern of each child stepping up the mic while a fascinating fact about them is read out. A word is announced and before spelling it out the contestant is allowed to ask for the word’s language of origin, its definition or for it to be used in a sentence (rarely useful, often sarcastic, and always funny). If you get a letter wrong, the bell is rung and your time in the competition is up.
“Words in the dictionary are the friends I shall have forever, more than the friends I have in school”
The characters have impossible names but very believable pubescent issues. The bee progresses, and through flashbacks and bursting into song the audience get to know the contestants and examine their vulnerabilities as the children, one by one, exit the competition.
There’s an energy to the cast and the musical score that carries right through the show. While there aren’t any Webber/Rice tunes that you’ll hum on the way home, some of the songs stand out and they’re certainly sung with gusto by the relatively small cast. At times some of the lyrics were lost in the noise, but the emotion was still understood. The live band sits up behind the stage and benefits from an enormous percussion section.
The show keeps the cast on its toes with plenty of opportunity for improvisation and ad-libbing around the volunteer contributions. Director Lisa May describes being attracted to this “danger” in the script. It means it’ll be a slightly different show every night and the cast won’t be able to just go through the motions.
In the end, Spelling Bee is less about words and music, and more about people dealing with their insecurities, coping with competition and expectations, finding friendship and acceptance, and learning to make good choices and live well.
It’s unashamedly feel good, a little schmaltzy, very funny, and at the end of a busy Thursday it made me smile from beginning to end. And now I know what a sermuncle is!
“There's no such thing as a sermuncle.”
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs at the MAC until 4 May. Well worth going to see. I'll be back to see what Bruiser get up to next.