A-S-T-O-U-N-D-I-N-G. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is an energetic show performed by some of Showstoppers’ slickest members and is a tight and bright pageant of success.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is unsurprisingly set in an American spelling bee following six over-achieving little-brats twelve year olds, and four much hoarser and hairier audience members, through the county final. Showstoppers’ production was near flawless and had the audience in stitches damn near every second of the show.
Well directed, Josh Cox, Daniel Wills and Lydia Edge should be supremely proud of what they achieved with this show; Ruthie Pinion and Michael Smith’s choreography was sharp and the band matched the cast’s energy and precision.
The cast were all phenomenal and having come to expect excellent vocals from Showstoppers, their musicals are normally made or broken on the quality of the acting. Playing children can be difficult, and with many of these characters slipping into the grotesque or parody would be all too easy (especially as each character is laden with tropes), yet each member of the ensemble conveyed a personalised and purposeful portrayal whilst also slipping in and out of multiple roles with ease.
Special mention has to be given to Robyn Fryer (Olive) and Andy Sugden (Panch), the former who injected some much needed heart and soul with ‘The I Love You Song’, backed up excellently by Josephine Ssemuyaba (Perretti) and Peter Bridgwood (Mahoney). The latter impressed all with his witty improvisation which was integral to keeping the show moving. This man can tell a joke and mastered the audience, drawing laugh after laugh with his wondrously terse “tittups”.
On the subject of jokes ,I feel it important to try and attempt to clarify what this show is. On the surface it first appeared to me to be a gag reel linked together with tuneful songs in a tightly bound one act, please all, fringe format. ‘The I Love You Song’ felt tacked on in an attempt to try and justify itself as a piece of theatre and to escape its roots in american improv (indeed it felt the “she’s pro-choice and still a virgin” line directed at the 12 year old protagonist was a tasteless remnant better left in some basement Brooklyn comedy club).
On reflection however, the context of the show is hugely important as Spelling Bee is presented as through the eyes of the child, self-evident by the words given to each character being representative of their current life challenges. The lisping, half-Jewish, adopted (to no-nonsense gay parents no less, has this joke not been overdone yet?) Logainne Schwarzangrubenniere, played lovingly by Cerys Beesley, is given words exclusively heavy in ‘s’ sounds. William Barfée, an unstoppable performance by the usual no-holds-barred Andy Banks, is given a literal list of the maladies the mucus ridden puss ball so predictably suffers.
These jokes might have come across as predictable and puerile, however, they had a quality that wasn’t quite irony, nor was it satire. It was somehow innocent, harking back to the black and white worldview (or should I say Weltanschauung?) that children’s cartoon comedy thrives upon. Spelling Bee as we see it is through Olive’s eyes, as is demonstrated in ‘The I Love You Song’ started after her word ‘chimerical’ (unreal, wildly fanciful, highly unrealistic), by the hinting her father might be abusive and the world she has created might be a simple manifestation: “I think he takes out on me / What he wants to take out on you”.
I’m probably reading way too much into this one song and likely interpreting this turning point incorrectly – it could all just be light hearted fun (joy to the subjective nature of theatre), but in art, context is everything, and for me, whether any depth can be found in this change of pace determines if the show’s attempt at feeling is an afterthought or fundamental.
This show is a comedy however, one which you will laugh your socks off to. Whether it is to Emma Bryant’s (Marcy Park) munching on carrots oblivious to the drama in front of her, or to Jacob Ketcher’s (Leaf Coneybear) extraordinarily flexible facial expressions (let’s hope the wind doesn’t change direction) there is something for everyone. Although I do hope Paddy Cahill (Chip Tolentino) isn’t a method actor, in which case I would not have wished to have been one of the audience ‘volunteers’.
For information on upcoming performances from SUSU Showstoppers, you can visit their website here.