Review by Anina-Marie & Kieran J. Evans
It’s a W-O-N-D-E-R-F-U-L night at the theatre!
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee presented by Brisbane Musical Theatre is on now at the Emerge Church in Warner. The show features a raised stage, with no set changes, a minimal usage of props, and a fairly loose definition of the term “fourth wall”. Overall the show proclaims that although striving for excellence is to be admired, you are also in charge of your own life, and to be happy within it. All through the medium of song, dance, and spelling a variety of words from critters to complex medical terms.
The show follows the exploits of six sixth-graders and several handpicked audience members to attempt spelling words in a competition, and the rigmarole and fanfare of their internal monologues and flashbacks that lead them to that point in their short lives thus far. This is interspersed with the hilarious dialogue between the two adults running the competition – former disgraced official, Doug Panch, and former Spelling Bee winner Rona Peretti; and comfort counsellor Mitch Mahoney.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was first developed and workshopped in 2004, where it evolved form an original improvisational play called C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E. In 2005 it won the Drama Desk Award, Lucille Lortel Award, and the Theatre World Award for, amongst others, the Outstanding Book of a Musical, Outstanding Ensemble Performance, Outstanding Director, and Outstanding Choreographer. It has also won a Tony Award in Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical, and Best Book of a Musical.
Aesthetically, Brisbane Musical Theatre’s production is pretty simple featuring tiered steps on the left of the stage for the spellers to sit on, and a desk on the right of the stage for the adults. The largely open stage facilitates the actors to move through the space easily and to jump down into the audience for interaction. The costumes and props, designed by Sara Reynolds are absolutely amazing with each character’s unique personality coming out through their outfits.
Under Jesse Bradford’s direction, the actors shine from beginning to end. The blocking feels natural and allows the audience to focus on these unique characters and suspend their disbelief. The musical direction by Mark Beilby is excellent. The performers deliver stunning vocals and perfectly balanced harmonies, backed up by a talented band consisting of Mark Beilby, Amanda Tio, Lily Colmer, Monique Matthews, and Alice Emor-Kan. Niamh Cadoo-Dagley’s choreography is seamless and serves the music well, bringing out the quirky characters and effectively drawing the audience volunteers into the action. What a treat to see members of the audience doing line kicks onstage! Bravo!
But this production would absolutely not be the amazing, fun romp that it is without the extremely talented cast that bring these loveable characters to life with flair and pizazz.
Ashlee Hermann takes on one of the more difficult roles in this production as Olive Ostrovsky, portraying some really serious vulnerable emotions on stage. Ashlee’s depiction of Olive’s inner turmoil feels authentic and raw, pulling on the heartstrings.
Angus Hughes’ Mitch Mahoney, is the very model of the bored comfort counsellor. Angus really shows off his comedy chops in this role! In the few moments where he belts out vocals he absolutely shines; one of the star vocalists of this production.
Connor Bingham as William Barfee (pronounced BarFAY!) is another one of the standouts of this production. Connor’s portrayal of the awkward misfit is absolutely on point, deliberate from beginning to end. His skills as a character actor is remarkable.
Marcy Park, portrayed by Jada Parsons is a very relatable character for overachievers. Jada’s portrayal of Marcy’s eventual breakdown and subverting of expectations felt genuine. Jada’s vocals are also excellent.
In the role of Leaf Coneybear, Jordan Gleeson is a definite audience favourite. His talent for bringing this innocent loveable character to life buys him a place in everyone’s heart. Jordan’s interaction in character with the audience during the interval is one of the highlights of the night.
Jose de Andrade as Douglas Panch acquits himself as one of the comedic highlights of the show. His hilarious facial expressions and well-timed awkwardness bring this character to life.
In the role as Logainne Schwartzy, Kristen Gleeson delivers a stunning performance. Kristen’s vocals are strong, and her knack for comedy (and maintaining a convincing lisp throughout the show) is superb.
Niamh Cadoo-Dagley in the role of Rona Peretti, which she has played before, brings a passion and vibrancy to the performance. Niamh’s Rona is absolutely hilarious with some great character work from this talented actor. Not only is Niamh an accomplished actor but also a wonderfully skilled vocalist and it shows!
In the role of Chip, William Chen is another audience favourite, especially as he convincingly belts out the song My Unfortunate Erection. William’s experience as a teacher serves him well in stepping into Chip’s shoes with an authentic portrayal.
The cast is rounded out with the ensemble and understudies, Aylish Tann, Ceitlin Campbell, and Dom Mitchell, in the supporting roles of several parents of the children onstage, and at one point a cameo of Elvis in a dreamlike sequence. Special shout out to Aylish Tann for her amazing vocals in The I Love You Song, a vulnerable and tear-jerking moment.
Also featured in this production of fourth wall breaks, are four audience members brought onstage to participate without any prior preparation. As amusing as this is, it brings to mind an actor’s worst nightmare to step onstage and have no idea of lines, blocking, or premise and suddenly realising “oh gosh where are my pants”. In all seriousness though, the audience participation in this production The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is extremely well managed and absolutely entertaining.
Overall, Brisbane Musical Theatre’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a fun, crazy romp with an extremely talented cast that audiences are not likely to soon forget. This is a show you will not want to miss!
But the season is short and the show will close tomorrow night (Saturday 9 July) so get in quick and buy your tickets tonight!