The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is indeed about children in a spelling bee. American AND Niche, it could easily fall flat on its face performed above a pub in West London. It does the opposite.
William Finn’s music and lyrics is a solid foundation for this new production.Adam Haigh has fit Spelling Bee into this small space perfectly but is by no means a small show – the audience is drawn in and could be in a theatre with several hundred more seats.
Spelling Bee executes audience participation brilliantly. While the ‘extra spellers’ are recruited before the show, their ‘performances’ are spontaneous but they are not humiliated or deliberately made to feel stupid. Done badly, this could feel very awkward but MCEK’S production navigates it perfectly.
There is not a weak link in the company, every member of the cast is vocally excellent and each of the spellers jump in to perform various parents which adds hilarious and moving context to each speller’s back story.
Olive (A fruit, not a vegetable – in case you were wondering, played by Thea Jo Wolfe) and her parents bring a tear to the eyes of many during The I Love You Song, which brings sincerity to the otherwise laugh a minute piece. Marcy (Jeannie May) Speaks Six Languages and has perhaps the most memorable solo performance, both in its content and acrobatic skill, but each child’s story is both funny and heart warming. If you don’t see yourself as a child somewhere in this show, you’re not looking hard enough.
Spelling bee is not to be missed. It plays at the Drayton Arms Theatre until June 16th.