‘‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ was endearing.
Welcome to the Bee!
Savoyards Musical Theatre presents its own take on the hit comedy musical ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.’ First premiering on Broadway in 2005 to critical acclaim and box office success, ‘Putnam’ quickly became a smash hit with audiences for its use of crude humour, audience participation and an eccentric ensemble of characters.
‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ follows six children competing in the titular competition. The kids each have their own set of quirks that either help or hinder them throughout the competition. ‘Putnam’ is a prime example of how any sort of competition can be made entertaining when presented well, and spelling is no exception. Audiences will consistently find themselves on the edge of their seats, invested heart and soul in the plights of the children and whether they win or lose. While goofy to its core, the script puts in the work to ensure its characters are endearing and likeable.
In Savoyards Musical Theatre’s ‘Putnam’, the entire cast was excellent. The narrative was spread thin among its ensemble, giving every cast member multiple chances to shine, with at least one song each centre stage. Every performer relished this opportunity, and everyone’s raw talent and commitment to the craft was on display.
Potentially the most challenging job the cast and creative team had was the use of audience involvement. Four contestants for the spelling bee are selected from the audience to compete alongside the cast. While this must have been an intimidating exercise for the cast, they seemingly savoured the opportunity to add more chaos to the piece. In particular, Nathaniel Young and Emma Erdis – who played Douglas Panch and Rona Lisa Peretti, respectively – got a lot of their best material from these sequences, their comedic timing sharp as a tack when judging the audience members. On the flip side of this, Tallis Tutunoa (who played Mitch Mahoney) cemented themselves as the true heart of the piece when they delivered an earnest goodbye to the eliminated audience members.
When it came to comedic timing, this otherwise immaculate show fell short in one scene alone. This is partly the fault of the script for instructing one of the cast members to ad-lib a political rant, but one such scene fell flat when one character broke the already-flimsy fourth wall to rant about Elon Musk. Not to say the criticism was inaccurate, just that it wasn’t funny and it distracted from an otherwise self-contained, character-driven show. An otherwise raucous audience was reduced to a few awkward chuckles during this scene. Thankfully, the show immediately picked up steam again once this scene was over.
On the technical side, there was a handful of opening night hiccups, mostly involving microphones being off, but these were all ironed out by the middle of the first act and will hopefully be absent from the rest of the season.
Lighting by Gabrielle Burton was an essential component throughout the production in keeping the audience’s focus as there were always people all over the stage. Burton’s lighting helped keep the attention where the action necessitated it.
‘Putnam’ is a show that seems perfect for community theatre. It features a small cast of nine performers and takes place in one location. Set design by Greg Heslewood for the main action sold the environment and complemented the atmosphere of the show wonderfully. Bleachers on one side of the stage and a judging panel on the other, with a microphone front and centre for the speller, meant the cast was forced to face the audience directly and intimately as they spelled their words. It very much felt like a school gymnasium that had been converted for the competition. Few set changes were needed; anything taking place in a different location was simply portrayed by the actors changing their temperament and selling the different atmosphere.
That’s not to say that Savoyards didn’t take the opportunity to indulge in technical spectacle when they could. A particular standout moment of the production was the song ‘I Speak Six Languages’ wherein Marcy Park, played with great intensity by Maegan Micola von Furstenrecht, soliloquises about her various talents and how easily she excels, all the while the crew was clearly working overtime to ensure that various queues went off without a hitch so that she could demonstrate her abilities.
‘I Speak Six Languages’ was also a standout example of the show’s excellent choreography by Jackson Poole. While Marcy Park was the focus of that particular song, other songs drew focus all over the stage. The structured chaos of the song ‘Pandemonium’ was a great example of this, as the cast was not only working to make themselves look angry and chaotic, but they were also tasked with herding audience members around the stage as they did so. The synergy between the cast and their creative team during these sequences was exceptional.
Musical direction from Mark Beilby was another element that really set this show apart from a lot of amateur and community theatre. Harmonies were on point in a way that’s rarely seen outside of professional projects, and the band sounded excellent throughout.
Director Tammy Sarah Linde, with assistance from Luke O’Hagan, ought to be commended for maintaining focus and keeping the story on track. With such an eccentric ensemble, it would be very easy for one or more of the characters to fall by the wayside, or for a character in the background to distract from the central focus of a scene. Linde and the cast had strong comedic timing and knew when to resort to absurdity and chaos, while also choosing their battles and knowing when to hold back.
With an ensemble this talented and everyone allowed their opportunity to shine, it’s hard to pick a standout, but I’ll have a crack! Cameron Grimmett as Olive Ostrovsky was an utter revelation. She took centre stage late in the show and grabbed the opportunity by the horns. ‘The I Love You Song’ is the dramatic high point of ‘Putnam,’ and Grimmett, along with Emma Erdis and Tallis Tutunoa (stepping briefly out of their principal roles to portray Olive’s parents) put their all into it and turned a showstopping number into an emotional gut-punch. Burton’s lighting also contributed to the stunning atmosphere of this scene, keeping Grimmett in the spotlight while Erdis and Tutunoa were barely out of vision, and the rest of the cast was drowned away in the darkness. It was a moment of raw emotion from everyone involved. In a largely absurd, silly comedy, it’s a truly impressive achievement to elicit tears from the audience.
Rounding off the cast. Clark Kent Bryon-Moss as Chip Tolentino was bursting with energy the whole way through, unafraid to reach the broadest depths of his own embarrassment. William Chen as Leaf Coneybear was endlessly sweet, with a far more understated but extremely wholesome arc of self-acceptance. Clare Thomson as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre was similarly good at playing up her character’s sweetness, but with much more of an edge to her that came out in the second act. Joshua Brandon as William Barfée was a scene-stealer through and through, playing up the character’s obnoxiousness early in the piece before pivoting to his softer side towards the end.
‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ is well-known among theatre fans for its crassness, silliness, and messing with its audience. But what Savoyards really got right with this production was the endearment. These characters are precocious and sweet, and even though they’re played by adults, it’s always worth remembering that these are kids who, at a crucial time in their development, are having a lot of pressure piled on them. So as funny as the script is, the thing that will stick with you is its sincerity, and Savoyards delivered that about as well as they could.
‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ performs until Saturday, 18 February 2023 at The Star Theatre, Wynnum High School. For more information, visit Savoyard Musical Theatre’s website.
Photos by Sharyn Hall