Review by Giddy Pillai
The distinctive squeak and smell of chalk. Blackboard green everywhere. Kids huddled on the bleachers, buzzing with anticipation. Building blocks in primary colours. A frazzled teacher decomposing for a moment before getting her game face on. From its opening moments, September Remedy Productions’ version of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee evokes the adrenaline-charged mundanity of a school campus on the morning of a Big Day.
The Big Day here is, of course, the titular spelling bee, in which six nervous children (all played by adults) battle it out for the glory of being crowned best speller in the county. If all this makes you a little nostalgic for the whiff of adolescent competition, you’re in luck. Show up early, enjoy a delicious (and cleverly themed) signature cocktail in the Hayes Theatre foyer, and pop your name down for the chance to be one of four audience members handpicked to join the pandemonium of the bee on stage!
Spelling Bee is a true ensemble show, and September Remedy has assembled a standout cast without a weak link in sight. Under the direction of Dash Kruck, they bring a quirky and frequently ridiculous set of characters into larger-than-life relief. Axel Duffy is chaotic and endearing as the distractible Leaf Coneybear, who’s smarter than anyone in his family realises. Adeline Hunter is eager and precocious as the young, socially conscious Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre. Jessica Kok is clinical, efficient and palpably dead-inside as the consummate (and sleep-deprived) overachiever Marcy Park. Rebecca Ordíz is earnest and vulnerable as shy, dictionary-loving glass child Olive Ostrovsky. Matthew Predny balances cocky bravado and awkward embarrassment as puberty-afflicted former champ Chip Tolentino. Daniel Raso is unsettling but sympathetic as smug, mucousy William Barfée. The six contestants are joined by ex-con turned hug-and-juice-box-dispensing comfort counsellor Mitch Mahoney (played with humour and heart by Nathaniel Laga’aia), and the two teachers running the bee: kind, caring and competent Rona Lisa Peretti (Katrina Retallick) and dry, dubious and disinterested Vice Principal Panch (James Haxby).
Rachel Sheinkin’s Tony award winning book is full of savage one-liners, which the cast deliver with perfect timing, ensuring that the audience rarely comes up for air between laughs. It’s particularly delightful to see Retallick’s and Haxby’s impressive improv chops in action, as they lightly but hilariously roast the audience contestants (would-be competitors be warned!).
All the contestants in Spelling Bee are isolated in some way – whether by overparenting, under-parenting, bullying or self-inflicted pressure. Something that really enriches this production is Kruck’s choice (which he writes about in his director’s note) to scratch beneath the surface of the text and actively ask what meaning this collection of misfits might come to find in the frequently ridiculous environment of a regional spelling bee. Approaching the musical with this question at heart lays the foundation for some beautiful moments on stage. The care that Peretti and Mahoney show for the students and the friendships that some of the students form with each other feel honest and grounded in empathy. The moments of clarity and agency that each of the students experience at some point feel well-earned and hit home. This makes for a heartwarming watch and helps to ensure that the production captivates from start to end – without this layer of nuance I think Spelling Bee might risk feeling like it peters out a little in the second half.
Intelligent production choices help tie the whole show together nicely. Monique Langford’s set effectively conjures up the atmosphere of a school, tapping into the audience’s sense of nostalgia. Adrienne Andrews’ costume design helps convey each character’s personality. Vi Lam’s choreography fills the space and captures the show’s sense of frenetic energy, while ensuring that things stay cohesive. Lucia Haddad’s lighting design is beautifully simple and seamless, subtly working to support the narrative.
As a Spelling Bee virgin, this was a fantastic introduction to a much-loved show. If you’re a long-time fan, I suspect you’ll find a lot to love in September Remedy’s version – it’s full of warmth, depth, heart and a lot of laughs. It’s a real treat to see a show that’s so bitingly funny, but that doesn’t feel at anyone’s expense. I found myself rooting for all the characters, and it was a delight to see them grow over the two hours I spent in their company. This is definitely a production that’s well worth a watch, and I can’t wait to see what September Remedy does next.