Spelling Bee pandemonium (in a good way)

The night before watching the Eglesfield Musical Society’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (directed by Harry Brook), there was a thunderstorm. Although it might’ve been an initial panic to the staff and tech team, it led to one of the best theatre set-ups the production could’ve hoped for. For about 20 minutes before the musical began, the actors improvised in incredibly convincing American accents (I’m still confused as to whether any of them were actually American, their accents were just that good), running around the Queen’s College garden playing tag, handing out mock-hacking leaflets for the Oxford Union President role (I’m looking at mine whilst I write this, the slate name is: PENETRATE) and speaking awkwardly into the mic as a sound check. During this, Ms Mahoney (played by Grace Olusola), the spelling bee’s janitor, low-key menacingly asked if I had finished my friend’s chocolate chip cookies so that she could put it in her bin bag – I had not… but she eventually came back for it in about 10 minutes when I was done, a brilliant introduction to the cast!

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a two-time winning and six-time Tony Award nominated 2005 musical set in the American Putnam Valley Middle School, where six slightly quirky pre-teens enter an annual spelling bee and battle it out, with each participant revealing a part of their (pretty traumatic) childhood and home life through song. The show “satires pushy parents, hyper-Americanism, the concept of child pageantry and musical theatre itself”, combining songs with a cast that can sing their hearts out, a band that is so on-point you sometimes forget they are live and following the cast in real-time, and genuinely hilarious interactions between characters. This production also involved audience participation, with three audience members (plus one audience liaison) joining the competition. In surprise to both the audience and cast, the audience participants did strangely well at spelling and managed to stay on-stage for a good chunk of the opening half. Although the cast, band and crew were incredible that night, the real star of the show was the mother of Leaf Coneybear’s actor (Luke Nixon) appearing as an audience participant, creating some hysterical interactions between the pair, including Leaf sitting on his real mother’s lap and also getting her to feed him a banana as part of the scenery to another character’s spelling.

Another standout was the exaggeration as to which the characters would go in order to succeed in the Spelling Bee, including William Barfée’s (it’s pronounced Bar-fay, not Bar-fee by the way) magic foot (played by Declan Rider… the character, not the foot), Leaf Coneybear’s spiritual possession, and Marcy Park’s (played by Emily Britto-Davis) prayer to God. God does in fact appear during ‘I Speak Six Languages’, a song where Marcy does what the title says, does unexpected gymnastic tricks, including ribbon dancing and mock-plays the piano in the pit. In prayer, God appears spotlighted (Angel Gabriel Nativity style) in one of the upper Queen’s College windows, proclaiming that he has better things to do than worry about a kid in a spelling bee and that Marcy doesn’t have to care about being good at everything. He then, rather suddenly, slinks into the back of the room, away from the visible window.

Some song highlights were Chip Tolentino’s (played by Maurice Cole) ‘My Unfortunate Erection’, a song about a teenage boy losing a competition to… well… you know. The song is so extra, incorporating the stereotypical elements of an epic book theatre ballad, with Chip belting (very impressively) ‘all because of my unfortunate erection. Oh, God!’ which is not something I was necessarily expecting to hear… well, ever really. ‘Woe is Me’ (which will be me after I get my prelims marks back) exaggerates the pressure of doing well in school competitions with Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre’s (a brilliant name played even more brilliantly by Bella Diaz Pascual) pushy, arguing dads coming to the forefront. She’s also head of the schools ‘Gay-Straight Alliance’ which I didn’t realise was an actual thing and can’t really think of anything else more American.

The characters that brought everything all together were the two moderators, Rona Lisa Peretti (played by Tess Klygis), a former Spelling Bee champion and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (played by Jake Dann), who had a five year break from the competition, due to an ‘incident’, but is now in a ‘better place’ due to his diet and Jungian philosophy. They both brought the best improvisational skills to the musical after some difficulties due to miscommunication.

The musical’s climax was ‘The I Love You Song’, discussing Olive Ostrovky’s (played by Eva Bailey) absent parents. Although the vocal performances were the best of the whole musical, the song might’ve been the worst, with some of the worst writing and smudges of cultural appropriation, which might’ve been a satire, but I’m not too sure. This again, is to no fault of the cast or crew, rather the original writing, as everyone still pulled through with the best performance possible.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by the Eglesfield Musical Society managed to be both hilarious and heart-warming at the same time and was a great treat away from exams and impending deadlines. Can’t wait to see what the Society does next!

Image credit: I-Cenay Trim

Image description: The Eglesfield Musical Society performing The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.