A letter-perfect performance from the North Shore Theatre Co.

Lachlan Ceravolo as Chip Tolentino. Image: supplied

Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by the North Shore Theatre Company, Zenith Theatre, Chatswood – Friday, 23 April, 2021. By arts editor Rita Bratovich.

★★★★  

A musical about a spelling competition may not sound very exciting but witty lines, interesting characters, engaging performers and clever design make this production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee a thrill a minute

For the team at the North Shore Theatre Company, the pandemic lockdown resulted in an unusually long lead time from auditions for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in November 2019, to opening night on 23 April, 2021. 

Although they obviously didn’t rehearse continuously during that period, it’s clear that they became so familiar with the material that when showtime finally did arrive, their performances were flawless. 

It’s rare for any company, let alone a small independent group, to look this slick and comfortable on opening night, but this gang definitely did. 

Left to right: Ewan Cooper-Frater (gay dad), Hannah Gibbins (Logainne) and Dominic Lee-Lindsay (gay dad). Photo: supplied.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is not one of the better known musicals. Written by William Finn (songs) and Rachel Sheinkin (book), it tells the story of a group of young students vying to take home the coveted – and very large – first place trophy in a regional (American) spelling competition. All the action takes place in one setting and pretty much in real time, that is, on the stage during finals of said competition. 

It’s not a very exciting set, either; a small grandstand of tiered seats for the contestants, a microphone at centre, a desk and two chairs at the side for the judges. But, this minimalism leaves a lot of room for imagination which the creative teams brings in spades. 

Initial credit needs to go to Fiona Kelly, director and choreographer. Her preceptive interpretation of the characters, who are mostly genre tropes, is one that gives them a bit of depth and humanity, as well as muting the cultural idioms so they become relatable to an Aussie audience. Kelly clearly has good comic sensibility, too. The delivery and timing of jokes is spot on. 

The unexpected delight in this play is the impressive choreography, also by Kelly. It’s not a tour de force of dance but rather cleverness of movement and use of sets – e.g., the grandstand is on casters and gets spun around a few times. Even the character’s gestures feel finely tuned. 

Cameron McCredie as William Barfee. Photo: supplied.

Add to this the imaginative lighting design by Tom French and a potentially bland set suddenly comes alive with nuance and animation. 

There aren’t any tunes you come away humming in this show; the songs are functional, vehicles for the funny lyrics. However, musical director, Brendan Flanagan still works magic with the arrangements and a small band of musicians. 

The actors are well cast and feature: Lachlan Ceravolo as the boy scout with an implacable erection; Hannah Gibbins as the LGBTQI advocate with two dads and a lisp; Molly McCrann as the non-binary toughie; Cameron McCredie as the arrogantly confident foot writer; Madison Russo as the ingenue with indifferent parents; Nib Oswald as vice principal and co-judge who gets the lion’s share of memorable lines; Emilia May as co-judge and ex-winner still basking in the glory; Abby van Balkom, an all-rounder with attitude to match; Dominic Lee-Lindsay and Ewan Cooper-Frater as the doting gay dads; Rachel Kay in various modes; and Ryan Henderson who is exuberant, if rather sartorially challenged. 

This little gem is light, refreshing entertainment that will extend your vocabulary. 

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays the Zenith Theatre, Cnr Railway & McIntosh Streets, Chatswood until Saturday, 1 May. Tickets ($34–$39) and further info from www.northshoretheatrecompany.org/spelling-bee.