Fortunately, somebody told me just before I started writing this review that the larger national touring production of this show that was scheduled a stop at the Royal Court before Christmas never actually made it (I wondered how it had passed me by, but was going to draw the parallel anyway. That would have been embarrassing). It turns out that this production, by Unknown – a new company set up by LIPA management students – is the first of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in Liverpool. It turns out to be the only one you would need, anyway.
The show takes place during the final of a regional spelling contest – a ludicrous sounding premise for a musical, that nevertheless has real method in its madness. Catchy songs bursting with wordplay and quick wit, wonderfully larger than life characters and a big heart at the centre of it all, it is entertaining, knowing and great fun.
Among the contestants are Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Sarah Hale), a precocious feminist pre-teen under pressure from her two dads; obnoxious, Sheldon Cooper-esque prodigy William Barfee (Miles Braithwaite); and reigning champ Chip Tolentino (Phil Teles Amaro – pictured above), whose libido might prove a distraction. There’s also the intimidatingly perfect Marcy Park (Sarah Gallegos); small town hick Leaf Coneybear (James Markham) and the closest thing the show has to an every(wo)man, the gentle, neglected Olive Ostrovsky (an outstanding Maisie Young). All are desperate to win, for reasons that become clear.
In keeping with the original production’s improv roots (it first appeared off-Broadway in 2004), audience members volunteer beforehand to be picked to join the contestants, and overseeing proceedings are highly-strung former bee champion Rona Lisa Peretti (Abigail Fitzgerald); sardonic Vice Principal Douglas Panch (a solid comic performance from Michael Bryan); and ex-con Mitch Mahoney (Blair Smith, whose dodgy mic hindered an impressive rock vocal), inexplicably on hand to comfort the losers as they are knocked out.
With a live band and performers on stage throughout, there’s a lot to take in. But director Cath Williams (a full time academic in radiography at Liverpool Uni) keeps things tight, and choreographer Evan Garrett does sterling work with large ensemble numbers, a highlight being Magic Foot, an old school show tune dedicated to Barfee’s spelling bee technique of tracing out words with his toes.
Emily Buckland’s set of towering books, littered with little visual gags, proves a perfect backdrop. But what really makes this production irresistible is the cast. Mostly comprising LIPA students – some performing in Liverpool for the first time – and some familiar faces from companies including What We Did Next and Liverpool uni’s LUST, their combined chemistry, comic timings and confidence in the face of some complicated lyrics and setpieces was just a joy throughout.
At times laugh out loud funny and touching at others, this was a little gem of a production, bursting with talent to watch out for in future, both on and off stage.