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Steve Pemberton: Why You Should Come & See ... The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

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The League of Gentleman’s Steve Pemberton opens tonight (21 February 2011) in the UK premiere of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Donmar Warehouse. This is his third musical, following The Drowsy Chaperone (as Man in Chair) in the West End and The Rocky Horror Show (which he narrated) on tour.

As part of the League of Gentlemen, Pemberton won the Perrier Award for comedy, a BAFTA and the Golden Rose of Montreux Award. The troupe’s acclaimed, cult BBC2 TV show spawned two live stage productions and two feature films. Pemberton’s other credits include Churchill: The Hollywood Years and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on film, and Art (with his fellow Leaguers, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith) and The Exonerated.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is conceived by Rebecca Feldmann, has music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin and additional material by Jay Reiss. After opening Off-Broadway, it transferred in 2005 to Broadway, where it ran for three years and won the Tony for Best Book of a Musical.

This is a musical comedy about a spelling bee in Putnam County in America. There are ten contestants who are competing to go to the finals in Washington, which are televised and a very big deal in the States. So the stakes are high for these children. We learn a little about their backstories and what’s the cause of their all very different personalities.

The show started with an Off-Broadway improv group and then William Finn, who is a very big Broadway writer, was invited to watch it. It developed from there and a lot of people from the original production were involved throughout. I think it’s been so successful because it’s come from a real place. It’s not something that a producer swept up from under the rug and said, this is gonna make me millions. It’s got integrity and it’s got heart, and it’s come from a very honest place, just like The Drowsy Chaperone which I did a few years ago.

I play Douglas Panch, the word pronouncer and vice principal at a local school. He’s not very sane ... There was an unspecified incident five years ago which meant that he was demoted, but the current word pronouncer is ill so he gets a second chance for redemption.

Of course, spelling bees aren’t as well known in this country. Some people probably don’t even know what one is, but it’s all made very clear. And part of the fun of the show is that every night we invite four members of the audience to be on stage to take part in the spelling bee. If they get their words right, they stay in, if they get them wrong they go out.

I’m actually a pretty good speller myself, but what has been surprising to me is, when there’s someone I like and I’m trying to keep them in the competition so I give them what I think is an easy word, and they get it wrong. Whereas at another point, I give them what I think it a very difficult word and they get it right. We all have our Achilles heel; different words are going to trip us up.

I don’t have to spell and I don’t have to sing either. The thing is I’m not much of a singer at all. However, I’ve done three musicals – The Rocky Horror Show, The Drowsy Chaperone and now this. I’m sort of carving out a niche for myself in non-singing roles in musicals! I really enjoy the energy of being in a musical and how the audience responds every six or seven minutes at the end of a number and you get this rush of excitement. You just can’t get bored.

It’s really bold of the Donmar to put on a show like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee - it’s not one of those plays where everyone dies in the last act, you know. I think everyone should come and see this show because it’s completely joyful, energetic, high-spirited, brilliantly choreographed, performed by an amazing young cast, and it’s unpredictable. Every night is different and, who knows, you may end up having the best seat in the house – right in the middle of the action.

Unfortunately, if you haven’t already got your tickets, you may not be able to see it, as the run at the Donmar is already sold out. I think a transfer might be possible, though; there seems to be a lot of interest.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs at the Donmar Warehouse from 21 February to 2 April 2011 (previews from 11 February). Directed by associate director Jamie Lloyd, the cast also features Katherine Kingsley, Maria Lawson and Ako Mitchell.


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