Saturday, 22 June 2013

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee - Koorliny Arts Centre (22 June 2013)

Spell "Audience participation".

Nervously approaches the microphone. Clears throat. Meekly asks, "Could you define that for me please?"

"Where a person in the audience volunteers to be on stage and participate in the events that will shortly transpire upon it."

"Could you, um, use it in a sentence please?"

"This musical is hilarious, entertaining and involves audience participation."

Yes, that was me impulsively volunteering to be one of four audience members who would be on stage participating in the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Koorliny Arts Centre. Well, it went something a little like that... actually it involved a clipboard, a form, and a casual "sure, why not?" in the lobby. I managed to stammer out the first word I was asked to spell (which led to "pandemonium") but I'm not entirely sure the second one was an actual word. So with heartfelt hugs, a small orange juice as a gift, the laughter of the audience ringing in my ears, and a chorus of "goodbye, goodbye" from the cast, my short-lived stage career was over.

This is a funny, entertaining musical and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Being on stage for a large chunk of the first act enhanced the experience - allocated a number, told when to sit, when to stand whilst interacting with the cast and even *gulp* dancing at one stage. Then, of course, being called to the microphone to spell.

But enough of me... what about the show? This celebrates the absurdity and competitiveness of that most unique of American "sporting events", the spelling contest. Each of the contestants battle not only each other but the expectations of parents; their own high hopes; raging hormones; and the pressure of being a winner. Each is quirky and fun, from the "magic foot" spelling routine to speaking six languages to an unfortunate, um, protuberance. On the opposite side, the moderator (and former winner) and vice-principal keep things running (relatively) smoothly with outbursts kept to a minimum! Then there's Mitch, ex-convict and counsellor who dispenses the hugs, juice boxes and some tough love.

As contestants are eliminated priorities change, revelations are made (including a surprise "cameo"!) and a winner finally announced. But there's a real sweetness underpinning the conclusion which was a lovely touch.

The cast are strong across the board with genuinely funny songs throughout. The highlight musically for me was "The I Love You Song" as one of the contestants imagines her parents' love and support as she is asked to spell a word that resonates in that moment. Beautifully handled by Kimberley Harris, Ryan Taafee and Rachel Monamy. Other highlights: Daniel Burton's unfortunate demise and subsequent resurrection as a candy bar seller; the surprise "cameo" that I will not spoil here; Jonathan Best's transformation from smug know-it-all to something far more tender; Paul Treasure's colloquial explanation for his character's outburst which any Australian will instantly understand (and sympathise with); and the slow motion sequence which was hilarious.

I must mention the other cast members - Natalie Burbage, seen recently in The Wizard of Oz and last year in Hairspray, who is always good and seems to specialise in a brand of zany yet kind-hearted character; Jesse Angus (also Wizard of Oz) with cape a flowing and a small hand puppet who lingers before being dragged off stage at the end; and Erin Craddock as the straight-laced Marcy Park whose joyous reaction to an unexpected epiphany is fun to watch.

There was a real buzz from the audience after the show ended and it is genuinely laugh out loud funny. But do you dare volunteer to go on stage?!

Directed by Ryan Taaffe; Musical Director Kate McIntosh with Choreography by Hillary Readings.

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