Exclaim Theatre Co, a new venture created by AIM graduates, seeks to bridge a gap or two at the beginning of an actor’s career by staging shows for new alumni to play in. Their first choice, playing at Australia Hall in Sydney’s CBD, is a no-brainer: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
This show has been such a gift for small, regional, and community groups: the sets and costumes don’t need to be elaborate or expensive to capture the mood and feel of the piece, and it’s a broadly funny, occasionally oddly poignant vehicle for solid character work for anyone who takes it on. It’s not quite as incisive as other William Finn works, but it’s eminently watchable, casually engaging, and one of those fun, laid-back audience experiences.
Exclaim offered “Adults Only” sessions on Saturday nights with a nine o’clock curtain – mixing up the audience participation with a fetish reference or two, and an unnecessary (tasteless) Rolf Harris joke – which serves to create a loose (though sober) crowd; with the school hall vibe of the hall, everything feels a little forbidden, which works in the show’s favour.
There is an intrinsic understanding at play here of musical theatre values and how to fashion the ‘vibe’ of a show out of limited resources; director Bryce Halliday knows what he’s doing, which is reassuring both as an audience member and for the future of Exclaim.
Also of great benefit to Exclaim is choreographer (and assistant director) Monique Salle – one of those triple-threat talents Sydney theatregoers should be keeping an eye on. An exceptional performer herself, Salle is uniquely conversant in broad musical theatre movement that maintains character integrity while creating an effective, often justly understated, visual feast – and making it fit the small stages of Sydney’s independent musical theatre scene. The movement in Spelling Bee is childlike, as it should be when the characters are children, but the essence of schoolyard play is smartly distilled into broad tableaux where every character has a moment, or a move, to reflect their true selves. Marcy Park (Meg Bate), moves primly; Leaf Coneybear is in Anthony Finch’s hand a new take on Dorothy’s beloved ally Scarecrow, loose-limbed and innocent and lovable; Olive Ostrovsky (Emma Cooperthwaite) is a heart bursting out of a small, polite body.
If the best things about the production are the awareness of the director and choreographer into how to correctly lay down the building blocks of a musical, the next best thing is Emma Cooperthwaite, who is such a precious ingenue for Sydney because she understands that portraying innocence and vulnerability is more than a wide-eyed gaze. There’s something so accessible to her performance, something tremulous in her pure voice when Olive feels lost.
The rest of the cast is good, though Cooperthwaite is an obvious standout. Jaime Leigh-Johnson brings her strong sense of comic timing to the table as Logainne, and Richard Woodhouse as Mitch Mahoney the comfort counselor is funny, with a wry gruffness that really works.
Spelling Bee is a show that has dated itself a little, or something is not quite as enjoyable about it as it was when it first hit Broadway and international stages. But it’s a safe choice for Exclaim, and it has let the company enjoy an earned but relatively simple success. Let’s hope that Exclaim stays in the game, and also that with their next show they challenge themselves — cast and creatives alike — to do more, be more, reach higher. They have it in them.