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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee - Murray Music & Drama

Reviewed by Paul Treasure

 

Certain subjects just should not make good musicals, and yet time and time again brilliant writers have taken these subjects and turned them into, not good, but brilliant musicals. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a classic example of this. A musical about a regional

spelling competition? And yet it works, and in this production by Murray Music and Drama, it works

brilliantly.


Performing in the Pinjarra Civic Centre, Murray are hampered in what they can do with their sets, and yet always come up with the goods. In this case, they have embraced the serendipitous* nature of performing a show set in a space similar to the one they perform in, and come up with an extremely effective and simple set that gave us a very clear sense of location from the very moment we walked in the doors.


The musical direction, by Kenn Ellis, was very well done, the singing was overall superb, and the choice to pare back the orchestration to a single keyboard works well with this show. The choreography was entertaining and energetic, and choreographer Christina Tregg is to be commended for the choice to allow the characters to dictate the level of restraint or abandonment with which each actor performed their moves. This added greatly to their believability onstage.


Director Lori Anders has given us a very strong and well-thought-out production. While borrowing heavily from previous productions (in a show as iconic as this it is very hard to escape the audience's expectations as to how certain things should be played), Lori has taken a couple of chances that have paid off beautifully. I have been led to believe that this is Lori’s first time directing a musical, and her assured character direction and sense of timing are very good examples of why a good director should tackle a couple of straight plays before tackling the added stresses of directing a musical. If this is what she does the first time out of the gate, I greatly look forward to seeing what she offers us in the future. With the couple of directorial debuts I have seen at Murray recently, I think their future is in very, very good hands.


One of the benefits of community theatre is that you are not worrying about the budgetary constraints of how many people are on stage, so doubling characters becomes a choice rather than a financial necessity. The creation of a trio of “Worker Bees”, black-clad, singing and dancing stage crew, who can then morph into various minor characters as required, was an inspired choice. The highlight of which was certainly Abigail Kotara, whose tracksuited Carly Grubenierre channelled Jane Lynch at her absolute finest. This choice to limit the doubling also gave us the chance to witness the impeccable cameo work of Murray veterans Karen Godfrey and Peter Bonner as Olive’s parents. Their trio with Olive, The I Love You Song, legitimately brought this reviewer to tears, and a spontaneous and audible shocked gasp from a couple of audience members as they realised this heartrendingly beautiful number was all in Olive’s head.


The “adult” cast, Mishka Miller, Jarrod Thomas, and Ruthy Creelman, were uniformly excellent. These three characters were played slightly more subdued than is normally the case. I think this was a very wise move on the part of the director and actors, as there are several moments where any one of these three characters can steal the show out from under the actual spellers. But instead, they demonstrated the maturity and graciousness to allow the “kids” to shine.


NOTE: The rest of this review may contain spoilers.


The main cast of spellers gave it their all, and their all was a lot to give. Steven Jones gave us a very confident and cocksure version of Chip Tolentino, until his early downfall. The disappointment and self-loathing he displayed in “My Unfortunate Erection” was an absolute delight. Bella Lambert was earnest and forthright as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, and we felt her genuine heartbreak at over-complicating her final word.


Luca Daniel has a boundless hyper-activity as Leaf Coneybear and manages to keep the energy up

the entire show. Although at times it does feel like he is just giving us the outward signs of being hyper-active, rather than feeling it. A similar problem occurs with Joel Gal’s portrayal of William Barfee, exceptionally sung, and with impeccable timing but Barfee is a very difficult and unlovable character on the surface, but ultimately one of the characters we are meant to fall in love with the most. It is very easy to treat him as a caricature rather than a real person, and I couldn’t help feeling Joel’s portrayal was a little bit mean-spirited, making us laugh AT Barfee, rather than for him.


The character of Olive Ostrovsky is in many ways the emotional core of the show and, with Escher

Roe, the show was in very safe hands. Beautiful, both in looks and personality, her Olive was imbued with warmth and joyfulness, so much so that her momentary breakdown in the trio with her parents was genuinely heart-rending. Marcy Park, the overachieving child of tiger parents can, at

first glance, be a relatively easy part to play, in this production, Sophie Boyland has managed to find depths normally undiscovered. Her visceral discomfort at being called “all business” was palpable, and a continuing presence for the rest of the show until her realisation that she does not have to win, and her freedom from other people’s expectations. She is also the first Marcy Park I have seen to demonstrate that she realises the first line of her song “I Speak Six Languages” is actually a response to a line from another character, and that the emphasis should therefore go on the word ‘six’, not ‘languages’. This is a minor and trivial point, but demonstrates the depths to which some of the actors in this show have managed to go in discovering their own characters.


Spelling Bee is an easy show to do, but a difficult show to do well. Lori Anders and her team have managed to take this well-loved and frequently performed show and elevate it above the predictability of a lot of other recent productions. If this show is an indication of the future of

Murray Music & Drama, then the future is bright and in brilliant and capable hands.

*Serendipitous – through accidental or unplanned good fortune or luck.


Cast of Murray Music & Drama's "The 25th Annual Putnum County Spelling Bee". Image provided by company.


Reviewer note: Paul has previously performed at Murray Music and Drama Club. He is a former Independent Theatre Association president. Tickets for this review were provided by the theatre company.

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