The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
There’s quite a buzz about Spelling Bee. This small scale musical won awards in New York, the Melbourne production garnered four Helpmann Awards last year and now the Sydney Theatre Company season has been extended. But the show left me cold.
William Finn’s musical is about a handful of nervous kids groomed like thoroughbreds to win at that American tradition of a county spelling competition. Jewish and gay, Finn often punctuates his musicals with characters on the margins. And most of these kids are struggling to live up to this particular competitive, well-spelt American Dream.
With numbing predictability, each tells and sings their inner story as they step up to the stage of the school gymnasium and spell obscure words. One girl is over-pressured to success by her two gay fathers – who dance on and fuss around her. Another girl dreams of liberation through failure. A boy sings how My Unfortunate Erection has tripped up his chances of winning.
Musically though the songs are pedestrian and our empathy limited by all these characters being mere 12-year-olds, and many cutesy kid-acting caricatures at that.
Spelling Bee is partly redeemed by a well known and strong cast. In inspired casting Magda Szubanski plays the nerdy and bespectacled fat boy and, with his unfortunate mucus problem, somehow makes him both hideous and sympathetic. In short baggy pants Szubanski is very funny. Her character even manages to win the friendship of Lisa McCune’s Olive. Not for the first time, McCune plays an awkward girl, lonely but plucky, and she’s good.
Also fine is Tyler Coppin as the precise principal calling each word to be spelt and struggling with a dark secret. Adding welcome musical excellence and class is Marina Prior as the sassy compere, a former spelling champion, now a real estate agent with well-seasoned sexual charms.
Yet all these talents can’t make up for a lame script short on wit and surprise. The lively direction and choreography from Simon Phillips and Ross Coleman can’t disguise the predictable story telling and musical banality of Spelling Bee. Even this cast couldn’t stir this critic into caring about any of them.
The well-publicised addition of having some audience members onstage with the kids, and taking their turn to spell impossible words, was a welcome novelty.
Spelling Bee is at the Sydney Theatre until July 28.