The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Bruiser Theatre Co presents 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee'

Bruiser Theatre Co presents 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee'

Bruiser Theatre Co presents 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee'

Bruiser Theatre Co presents 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee'

Nobody seems too sure of its provenance, but the word 'bee' is widely used these days to describe almost any kind of get-together for a specific action – a sewing bee, a quilting bee, a spelling bee... the list is endless and ripe with mischievous suggestion. One possible – though somewhat far-fetched – derivation is from the Old English word bēn, meaning prayer.

Whatever, there certainly are copious amounts of praying and soul searching emanating from the nerdy young competitors in this multi-award winning American musical comedy, conceived by Rebecca Feldman - artistic director of the New York company The Farm - and given one heck of a production by Bruiser in an Irish premiere co-produced with The MAC.

William Finn's laser-sharp lyrics and clever music really fly under Lisa May's perennially inventive, high-energy direction. May has coaxed some terrific performances from her cast of nine, six of them playing teenagers, the other three playing socially inadequate, barely grown-up adults. Stewart Marshall's cartoon-coloured, retro-styled set, surreally lit by James C. McFetridge, pitches the action into the assembly hall of Putnam Valley Middle School, somewhere, anywhere in modern-day America, a town where time has stood still.

The hostess for the night is the curvaceously glamorous Rona Lisa Perretti, a former winner of the Spelling Bee, gushingly played, with a twinkle, a shimmy and a sympathetic ear, by the vivacious Colette Lennon. Rona is a living, breathing advertisement for the transformative effects of victory in the Bee, her anonymous, humdrum life having since taken on minor celebrity status.

At her side is Morgan Crowley's twitchy, sweaty Douglas Panch, the competition's official word reader. Douglas is returning to duties after a five year absence, having been the victim of an unexplained 'incident', whose destabilising effects are glimpsed, rather terrifyingly, late on in proceedings. Finn has reserved some of his very best lines for this pathetic character and Crowley handles a treat the scathing verbal put-downs and sardonic contextual nudges, which have audience and competitors squirming with apprehension.

Only in America could a spelling competition come complete with a hug-dispensing comfort counsellor – The X-Factor take note. While the performance level initially feels a little undercooked, Ross Anderson-Doherty's Mitch Mahoney (he would just have to be of Irish extraction, wouldn't he?) certainly looks the part of a criminal on community service parole, with his tattoos, bandana and large, accommodating, t-shirt encased frame.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling BeeThe task of delivering credible performances as characters at least half their age is exceptionally well accomplished by the remaining six cast members. Playing down is, however, only part of it; far greater is the challenge of conveying the personality disorders, the emotional and social dilemmas, the insecurities and angst of a group of kids who, in everyday school life, find it desperately difficult to fit in. And therein lies another intriguing aspect of this unlikely and surprising show, which, for all its broad comedy and witty dialogue, is poignant and thought-provoking in its exploration of the many and varied anxieties of growing up.

Terence Keeley's goofy, squeaky-voiced Leaf Coneybear has to battle with low familial expectations and average academic grades. Yet when asked to spell a series of horrendously difficult words, a Superman-type, stentorian alter ego intervenes, speeding him through with flying colours.

As the swaggering Chip Tolentino, Adam Dougal's Scout uniform may be emblazoned with proficiency badges but what he cannot cope with his newly-emergent, rampant sexual awareness, which, literally, gets in the way of his thought process – and prompts one of the funniest and most outrageous musical numbers in the whole show.

Kat Reagan is scariness personified as a po-faced Marcy Park, the original Miss Perfect. It takes a startling vision of Jesus himself – complete with Irish accent and glowing Sacred Heart – to disabuse Marcy of the imperative to be best at everything. Her moment of self-liberation when she allows herself a tiny failure is a truly joyous event.

Minus the slightly overdone lisp, Jolene O'Hara hits a sure, confrontational note as the tiny, politically correct bombshell Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the daughter of two gay men, whose combined names compose her own surname. Tossing her tightly coiled pigtails defiantly, she takes on not only her competitors but those sectors of society who would condemn her unconventional but loving family set-up.

Fiona Carty's Olive Ostrovsky looks and sings like an angel. Hiding behind her blonde hair, her hands tucked awkwardly into the pockets of her dungarees, her unhappiness patently stems from lack of attention by her uncaring absentee parents. Carty's needy, tongue-tied gaucheness conceals a towering intellect and a deep need for a genuine friendship beyond her textbooks and dictionaries.

She finds it in the unlikely figure of Gerard McCabe's brilliantly-executed William Barfee – or Bar-fay, as he continually insists. He may register as nothing more than a sulky, scruffy, asthmatic fat boy, but when his ample contours start quivering and his magic right foot gets motoring along the floor, scrolling out the most complex words, he is transformed into an unassailable genius.

Musical director Matthew Reeve and his four fellow players speed proceedings through the catchy, non-stop score, encompassing solo numbers and big dance sequences, kitsch tableaux and crazy visions. The whole mad mix is routinely augmented by the recruitment of four volunteers from the audience, one of whom on opening night turns out to be the larger-than-life, far from publicity-shy Northern Ireland Assembly member Basil McCrea.

Full marks to Bruiser for hitting upon this super show, which is relatively little known on this side of the pond. When it comes to a final adjudication, there's only one way of spelling this nimble, sure-footed production:

Jane Coyle is a Belfast-based freelance arts journalist and critic, who also contributes to The Irish Times, The Stage, Culture Northern Ireland and BBC Radio Ulster. 

  • Review
  • Theatre

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by William Finn (music & lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book)

18 April - 4 May, 2013

Produced by Bruiser Theatre Co and The MAC
In The MAC, Belfast

Conceived by Rebecca Feldman

Directed by Lisa May

Musical Director: Matthew Reeve

Choreography: Jennifer Rooney

Set design: Stewart Marshall

Costume Design: Alice McCullough

Lighting Design: James C. McFetridge

With: Ross Anderson-Doherty, Fiona Carty, Morgan Crowley, Adam Dougal, Terence Keeley, Colette Lennon, Gerard McCabe, Jolene O'Hara, Kat Reagan