Student run theatre group Underground Productions, is mixing it up with a change of venue for their latest production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
The quirky one-act musical began long before curtain up, as we walked into the courtyard of the Hamilton Hall and were greeted with a bake sale, a spelling bee registration desk (aka ticket booth), and anxious spelling bee participants scattered throughout the audience line-up at the theatre door.
Set in the Putnam County High School gym, with three adult characters, six school children (played by adults), and three impromptu audience members, this show takes audience participation to a new level. Having to compete in “The Bee”, and even in the dance sequences, the core cast members are great at chaperoning the audience/cast members to create an additional layer of entertainment for the show.
Well cast by director Danielle Carney with meticulous musical direction by Matthew Samer, each ensemble member portrayed distinctly awkward yet charming characters, most with highly trained singing voices. Competing for the life and death title of the best speller in the county and a place in the Nationals, our loveable nerdy misfits are; attention deficit Leaf Coneybear (Ethan Brinkworth), whose endearing anxiety only slightly outstrips his oddness; obnoxious William Barfee (Matty Johnston), the allergy-prone, socially inept, know-it-all with a magic foot; introvert Olive Ostrovsky (Emma-Jane Curik), whose dictionary is a sad substitute for her absent parents; outspoken Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Samantha Samer), who is desperate to make her two gay dads proud; Marcy Park (Kimie Tsukakoshi), whose over-achievement is an understatement; and boy scout Chip Tolentino (Jack Treby), whose growing pains are popping up at the most inopportune time.
The comedy and ultimate success of the show, while aided with a script of witty one-liners, lays in the execution of the actor’s idiosyncratic characterisation and comedic skills. It is hard to pick out favourites as the entire ensemble did an outstanding job, with fully crayon coloured-in characters that we as an audience really felt for (perhaps it was the recognition of our own inner child in the onstage angsty tweens).
However, the standout number was ‘I Speak Six Languages’ performed by tour de force Kimie Tsukakoshi, as she demonstrated her character’s (and by extension, her own), many different talents including reciting foreign languages, ballet, piano, and of course singing, which all built up to a grand finale gymnastic split at the end – wow.
The adult characters are made up of the ‘The Bee’ moderator and former Bee winner (Danika Saal), Vice Principal Douglas Panch, played superbly by Jack Kelly, and “comfort counsellor” Mitch Mahoney (Josh Daveta), who is on parole doing his community service by handing out a hug and a juice box to the losers as he escorts them off the stage.
With music by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling is both funny and touching as each participant reveals their inner adolescent troubles. Touching on poignant issues such as absent parents, bullying, marriage equality, parental expectations, and puberty, this bitter-sweet show reminds us that adolescence wasn’t always a responsibility-free, fun ride.
A wonderful ensemble piece with fun characters, witty one-liners, and an aptly simple set, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling makes a great choice for community theatre organisations to mount. In fact Underground Productions run has been so successful with its final weekend sold out, that they are putting on an extra show on Sunday 13th at 7:30pm. Book your tickets now before you miss it.