Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at The Zenith Theatre

Review By Jerome Studdy Syzygy! S-Y-Z-Y-G-Y, Syzygy!

Six letters and we’re off for a charming tumble through the dictionary with the characters of William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s one act musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Taking to the stage of The Zenith Theatre for their opening night, North Shore Theatre Company were joined by a very nearly full house of keen spellers and theatre enthusiasts. But would the right letters fall into place?

After a monster 18-month rehearsal period (interrupted by C-O-V-I-D), the cast took to the stage with the comfort of intimate familiarity with the book and score. However, this lengthy rehearsal process would prove to be a double-edged sword. Whilst the show was snugly buckled under the belts of the cast, it was tired and lacked the freshness essential to selling the lively and wonderful characters of The Spelling Bee. This was particularly evidenced in the contrast between scripted content and the moments of audience interaction and improvisation. The audience were tickled with genuine and hearty laughter watching the unlucky selected few squirm onstage. It also proved a wonderful opportunity for Emelia May (Rona Lisa Peretti) and Nib Oswald (Vice Principal Panch) to flex their comedic timing.

The cast of spellers were capable performers, but each had pitfalls which caused their characters to suffer. Madison Russo and Cameron McCredie as Olive Ostrovsky and William Barfée respectively were well rounded and gave solid vocal and character performances. Russo’s Ostrovsky was a likeable portrayal, contrasting McCredie’s slick and sticky Barfée. However, both characters lacked depth and humanity, something that would become a common theme across the production.

Hannah Gibbins as Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre was brimming with enthusiasm and champion commitment to character and stagecraft, though some of the performance was crippled under the laboured trademark speech impediment of the character. Ryan Henderson as Leaf ConeyBear was similarly committed to character and energy but got caught in the flights of fancy and distraction of the character losing authenticity because they felt pre-planned and calculated. Abby Van Balkom’s portrayal of Marcy Park was suitably endearing and pitched a clearer arc than the other characters but fell short as the audience weren’t fully enamoured by the character’s rebellion. Rounding out the spellers was Lachlan Ceravolo as Chip Tolentino. Ceravolo’s Tolentino was smarmy and unlikeable, as befit the character, but lacked charm and presence, which meant the audience never warmed to the character or his fall from grace.

This show is incredibly deceptive. Whilst it may seem a simple show (six school children singing at a spelling bee), The Bee is in fact an incredibly complex score and book, that requires a powerhouse cast and intelligent direction to really sail. Where NSTC struggled was character and music. The cast lacked unity in age portrayal. Some characters could have been six or seven, where other characters were well into their teens. This meant that there were radically different energies onstage which rendered each character alien to one another. The characters were also too shallow. They’re not intended to be just a collection of quirks and idiosyncrasies, but rather are meant to be far more human. The audience are supposed to initially dismiss the obnoxious six spellers but come to love and pity them as they learn what causes them to suffer. This is not just a show about words, it deals with domestic abuse, intergenerational pressure, puberty, neglect, mental health, and a myriad other “adult” issues; all through the eyes and from the mouths of children.

Musically, the show was a little too loose to really sell the craftiness and appeal of William Finn’s writing. Lack of ensemble between the cast and the band, loose edges in the band itself, and poor intonation from the cast left a few songs feeling shaky.

However, despite these criticisms, it is commendable that the show soldiered on through the pandemic and made it to stage, a real testament to the cast and crew. While the show is still running, show your support of their mammoth efforts by spending a night out in Chatswood and buying your T-I-C-K-E-T-S!

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