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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee - Hayes Theatre Co (NSW)

Music and Lyrics by William Finn, Book by Rachel Sheinkin and Conceived by Rebecca Feldman.


Reviewed by Justin Clarke

Hayes Theatre, Darlinghurst

Until 8th October 2023


3.5 STARS


- September Remedy Productions makes S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G fun in their debut production that inspires the goofball child in us all -


Amongst musical theatre performers, there are shows that each may come across in their careers at various stages as “staples” of the theatre world. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is one of these shows. Beloved in the community theatre world for its small cast with extraordinarily colourful characters, there’s plenty of fun in Rachel Sheinkin’s book , as well as William Finn’s (Falsettos) music and lyrics. Presented by new production company, September Remedy Productions, and the Hayes Theatre Company, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee doesn’t quite live up to the theatre’s most recent productions but it does bring with it a load of fun and a heck of a lot of heart.


Primary school teacher Miss Rona Lisa Peretti (Katrina Retallick) enters in a tizzy in the all too familiar burnt out way teachers nowadays do after exiting the playground. She writes, “Why am I still doing this?” on the chalkboard before her mind is transported back to the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and the colourful characters who took part in that fateful year's competition.

The cast of September Remedy Productions and Hayes Theatre Co's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Images supplied by Hayes Theatre Co & September Remedy Productions


The beauty of Spelling Bee lies in its quirky characters, normally played by those much older than the primary ages they’re inhabiting. Director Dash Kruck ensures their cast are up to the challenge and successfully gets the audience to fall in love with oddballs and misfits throughout. The six contestants at the 25th competition include Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre’s (Adeline Hunter) pigtailed contestant, who is pushed to being a champion by her overbearing fathers. Then there’s the over-achieving and determinedly dogged Marcy Park (Jessica Kok), as well as the timid and wistful Olive Ostrovsky (Rebecca Ordiz) who looks longingly at the seats left for her neglectful parents.


Axel Duffy’s Leaf Coneybear stumbles about in his own hand-made ragged clothes unsure if he is smart enough for the competition, while the boy with the magic foot, William Barfée (Daniel Raso) sniffles through his mucous membrane disorder. Rounding out the competitors is the champion of last year’s Spelling Bee, Chip Tolentino (Matthew Predny) dressed in a baseball shirt and tight pants that he’ll come to regret.


Judging the competition alongside Miss Peretti is James Haxby’s disgraced Vice Principal Panch, whose dry delivery of each word of the competition is an absolute highlight of the show. Hired to complete his community service, Nathaniel Laga’aia’s Mitch Mahoney is on hand to comfort each child (or adult) who loses with a large hug and a juicebox.


But these aren't the only competitors at this year’s Bee. In each performance, four lucky audience members have the opportunity to join the Bee and put their orthography skills to the test. With these new contestants joining the stage, the cast don’t miss a beat as they help guide them unwittingly through musical numbers and take every opportunity to engage them within the show through their characters. It’s an absolute joy to watch and makes for some of the biggest laughs in the first act of the show, particularly as Miss Peretti introduces a “fact” about each contestant - one who wrote a love letter to Barnaby Joyce, another who is the hairiest six year old speller they’ve had on stage.


Where the first act of Spelling Bee introduces the quirks of each character and develops the audience’s connection with each of them, the second act dives into the more emotional story of each one. Ultimately, there is only one who can win the Bee. It’s a clear indication of the performers doing something right as each audience member audibly “awws” as the contestants are ultimately dinged out of the competition.


The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is P-A-C-K-E-D with a T-O-N-N-E of fun, led by its diverse cast of C-H-A-R-A-C-T-E-R-S.

Monique Langford’s set design is mostly sparse, with only a range of colourful boxes organised throughout the space on top of an underutilised chalk floor. The back of the set is decorated with a mostly dark wall, with squares hidden over lights for Lucia Haddad’s lighting to create shadows behind. It’s not the most inspired set the Hayes has used, but the single setting of the Spelling Bee doesn’t really require extravagance either. Instead Haddad’s lighting adds spatters of blues, purples and other bright colours to illuminate singular characters through large solo numbers.


Vi Lam’s choreography is tight and energetic in the space as the cast manoeuvres on and around the boxes and microphone stand, reminding us at certain points that this is actually a musical and not a play. There was also some much needed work to be done with queues for mics as some characters didn’t switch on until halfway through their dialogue, whereas others needed to be switched off after large dance numbers to lessen the heavy breathing.


The final act slowly drags the audience to the finish line as Finn’s music and lyrics become more character driven and ultimately less memorable, instead calling upon the cast to fill in the void with the work they’ve done to draw in their audience thus far. This particular production doesn’t quite reach the heights of Spelling Bees that have come before it, but it also doesn’t fail to truly entertain the audience who left with comments of applause on their lips.


The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is P-A-C-K-E-D with a T-O-N-N-E of fun, led by its diverse cast of C-H-A-R-A-C-T-E-R-S. It’ll remind you that it’s great to be different, while also making you long for those carefree days of youth. If only we all still got a juicebox after we didn’t do very well!

 

CAST & CREATIVES

Director Dash Kruck Musical Director Abi McCunn Choreographer Vi Lam Resident Director Kira Leiva Set Designer Monique Langford Costume Designer Adrienne Andrews Lighting Designer Lucia Haddad Sound Designer Sam Cheng Production Manager Rebecca Kellahan Stage Manager Grace Sackman Assistant Stage Manager Hana Barn Production Assistant Jude Keane Producers Kayla French and Sarah Isaacs

Starring Axel Duffy, James Haxby, Adeline Hunter, Jessica Kok, Nathaniel Laga’aia, Rebecca Ordíz, Matthew Predny, Daniel Raso, Katrina Retallick, Cypriana Singh and Tyran Stig.


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