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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Is musical comedy making a comeback? The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by William Finn (music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book), a semi-improvisatory ninety-five minute spelling competition musical which made it from off-Broadway to on five years ago, is witty, punchy and slightly off-colour.

And if Jamie Lloyd’s high-octane, brilliantly cast production doesn’t clinch him the artistic directorship of the Donmar Warehouse in succession to Michael Grandage, I don’t know what will.

With designer Christopher Oram, he’s transformed the theatre into a school gymnasium, replaced the bench seating with blue school chairs and created a playground atmosphere with some stabbingly sharp characterisations and a perfect balance between music and comedy; it’s so much more fun than Passion.

The marvellous documentary movie Spellbound (2002) was a record of a national spelling bee; this show, more small town, but similarly revealing of the children’s backgrounds and “type” of American they are – in a more cartoonish way &mdsash; has adult actors playing the kids (and doubling as various parents) and three pre-selected audience members.

On opening night, one of these was the critic of the Evening Standard, Henry Hitchings, who acquitted himself admirably in declaring his allegiance to the flag, spelling “telepathy,” fielding some mild insults and joining in some simple ensemble moves. Bravo, Hitch! The other spellers include a girl who lisps, has two “dads” and is lumbered with “cystitis” (Iris Roberts); a boy scout nobbled with a sudden erection and a song to celebrate it (Harry Hepple); and a hippie offspring who goes into a boss-eyed trance to spell words he doesn’t know(Chris Carswell).

Love interest? An impatient fat boy (David Fynn) and a lonely dreamer  (Hayley Gallivan) strike unexpected sparks, and they’re all deliciously supervised by Steve Pemberton (of League of Gentlemen fame) as the not-so-virtuous Vice Principal and Katherine Kingsley as an ex-champ moderator with brash, leggy, cheerleader impulses.

Finn’s score, endlessly inventive and mordantly intriguing, with great use of shifting rhythms, has several great break-out moments, and Jesus himself puts in an appearance to confirm that he deals in more important matters than spelling; suitably enough, the competition is then won with  “weltenschaung.” I loved every minute, and there’s also a top-notch five-piece band under the musical direction of Alan Williams.


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