By Rosie Niven
I like to think of myself as a pretty avid speller. Or so I thought, until I saw NUTS’ production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee this week at Io Myers, where I realised just how challenging spelling can be. The show centers on a spelling bee at Putnam Valley Middle School, as six awkward teens compete for the grand prize of a 200 dollar savings bond and the glory that comes with the best speller in the county. With each round, the words become more difficult and the spellers face elimination - but who will win?
The fun of this show is that as an audience member, you really don’t know. The show seems to play on a lot of unpredictability, making sure you can’t predict the story before it unfolds on stage. This is due in part to some brilliant audience participation - four audience members are invited onto the stage to join the bee, and left there during songs, scenes and dance numbers until it is their turn to spell a word. If the audience member gets it correct, they get to stay. If they fail, they get sung off stage and given a juicebox and an awkward hug. The success of this participation is a credit to the cast, who interact with these participants and ad-lib sections of text. When an audience member kept spelling words correctly despite the judges giving her ridiculously difficult words, performer Lily Stokes smiled through gritted teeth and said, “Ms Wang is a very good speller.” This back and forth challenge between the performers and the unexpected performers is delightful to watch.
This production of Spelling Bee showcases the impressive talent that the University of New South Wales Theatrical Society (NUTS) has to offer its audience - the ensemble was filled with impressive voices, incredible dancers, and engaging performances. Izzi Hanly, Dave Collins, Lily Stokes, Sam Walsh, Lisa Gluckman, Jack Westbury, Sophie Tzioumis, Paul Escorrido, and Isabella Olsson make up this talented bunch, each bringing their own impressive skill set to the ensemble. Most notably, Tzioumis’ impressive dance moves had the audience on the edge of their seats, and Hanly’s solos during The I Love You Song were absolutely phenomenal. Listen out for that song if you go, because it will give you goosebumps.
Spelling Bee is filled with laughs, and the jokes flow freely from each of the performers as they hit us with quick-witted lines, even when ad-libbing some of their own. The unsung hero of this comedic show is Sam Walsh as Vice Principal Douglas Panch, whose responses to the students when asked to use their given word in a sentence had the audience rolling in their seats. During slower moments in the work I could look to Walsh and know I was guaranteed a laugh even when he wasn’t speaking.
I can only fault this production on two points: one, that the script slows down significantly in the middle, and two, that weak microphones made it difficult to hear some of the ensemble lines during songs. Neither of these were seen as huge detractions.
Director Jordan Barnes has brought to the stage a hilarious and heartwarming musical that is an absolute credit to himself and the society. I hope to see more from Barnes soon. Spelling Bee will give you a fantastic night at the theatre, full of laughs, fond (and not so fond) memories of your awkward years, and a new found passion for spelling. Judging from the standing ovation they received on opening night, I think the rest of the audience feel the same. As the NUTS major, this one’s only on for a week, which means you only have a few days to head on over to Io Myers and catch this wonderful show. Friday’s already sold out, so if you’re looking for something really enjoyable to see this week, Spelling Bee would be my pick.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.