DTR - Reviews of 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Fri 7th – Tue 11th August 2015

reviews

Liam Marchant

at 00:59 on 9th Aug 2015

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During the opening number of ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ – a song about the joys of words with reference to the rules of such a competition – I began to prepare for a kitsch nightmare, Glee on steroids.

The stage swarms with a chorus of all-American youth, boy scouts and prepsters drunk on a cocktail of zeal and sunshine. They kick their legs and show off teeth fit for a Colgate ad whilst the misanthropes of the audience (hello there) become enveloped in a cloud of cynicism.

Thankfully, this cloud soon lifts after the preliminary song and dance are over as the cast throw off the twee stuff and launch into material which isn't quite so insufferably positive.

Leaf Coneybear (Julian Worth), clad in a rather nifty cape, squarks and stumbles about the stage with talent. He performs well in the role of archetypal oddball – we’re even told that he ‘makes his own clothes’.

His adversaries at the Bee include Schwarzy (Lorna Ryan), the militant lisped chair of her school’s Straight-Gay Alliance, Barfee (Hunter Harlow), sufferer of a ‘rare mucus membrane disorder’, as well as Olive (Emma Norville), a neglected child with a stunning voice who just wants to make her parents proud.

Each performer exhibits formidable vocal ability with a choral arrangement strong enough to overshadow the loneliness of the show’s single keyboard. A couple of songs lapse into superfluous sentimentality but the production saves itself from becoming High School Musical-ite with humour off-colour enough to make even Frankie Boyle sit up straight.

When asked by a contestant to use ‘cenacle’ (the location of the Last Supper) in a sentence, the Vice-Principal Douglas Paunch (Austin Harlow) responds: ‘When Jesus and the apostles left the cenacle, the waiting staff took one look at the tip and said, “Jews”’. Even the Boy Scout Chip (David Jarzen) breaks his code of honour by admitting that he’d like to ‘deflower the girl in the flowery dress’.

Considering that most of the characters turn out not to be stereotypical Hollister-wearing, glottal-stop-dropping Americans, but instead emerge as eccentric individuals with their own self-doubts and quirks (who else would compete in a spelling bee?) this subversive deadpan dialogue suits the production well.

Admittedly, the first half of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee suffers from a samey format whereby a contestant is introduced, spells a word, and then sits back down in their seat. Nevertheless, the show picks up in the second half with a top-notch slow motion scene and a cameo from ‘Asian Jesus’.

Overall, a thoroughly worthwhile show in which Yankee humour is proven yet again to be America’s best export (well, maybe second best after Jack Daniels). A must-see for all musical-comedy lovers.

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Laurie Atkinson

at 01:08 on 9th Aug 2015

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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is Beyond the Page Theatre Company's all-singing, all-dancing Fringe debut and showcases the wealth of talent boasted by West Potomac High School. Unfortunately, the company's choice of show is one that sells its cast short, and detracts from a range of performances and a quality of production that threatens to burst the seams of this uninspired script.

Like Glee club meets Little Miss Sunshine, the achievement of this transatlantic high school phenomenon is extremely impressive. Director Philip Lee Clark has moulded an ensemble that is as brilliantly confident as it is meticulously drilled, complete with Cathy Manley's cheerful musical support and an enviable Edinburgh venue to boot. Special mention should go to the angelic vocals of Emma Norville's Olive, and the chair-toppling, puppet-wielding physical showmanship of Julian Worth's Leaf.

Perhaps it is this almost overabundance of ability that motivated the questionable selection of The Spelling Bee for Beyond the Page's big Edinburgh splash. The script accommodates a host of eccentric spelling-prodigies, and a solo musical number for every one. However the result is a production that subsists on tired stereotypes, little aided by wrenched lyrics and tame eroticism that no amount of slick choreography or immaculate lisping can redeem.

An exception here is Hunter Harlow's Barfy, who came closest to injecting his performance with the charisma and unpredictability that the script so sorely lacked. It was notable too that the biggest laughs came from Austin Harlow's Douglas Paunch and his original responses to the infamous plea "Can you use it in a sentence?" Yet at times, even these reliable gags left a taste in the mouth that was sickly sweet. Cheap shots at Greek debt and Green cards seemed lazy and tasteless when coming from the comfortable chair of a Virginia spelling bee.

"It was a very nice beginning" are the somewhat ominous words proclaimed in the show's full cast finale, and certainly, this year's Fringe may mark a promising beginning for a number of the students of West Potomac High. Go to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee if you want first scoop on some 'one's to watch' in musical theatre, though right now, it doesn't make fantastic watching.

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