As an appalling speller and a Brit, unfamiliar with the phenomenon of the spelling contest, I was a little sceptical about ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’, a musical by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin, put on by St Andrews based company Patch of Blue Theatre at this year’s Fringe. My fears were soon allayed however, as I was literally invited up and into the heart of this engaging performance to be a ‘guest speller’.
The musical portrays a regional Spelling Bee final, in which six contestants and three enigmatic presenters are taking part. The audience learn background details about the participants aged nine to fourteen and their adult hosts, revealing many of the tensions of growing up, from oppressive to negligent parents and of course, puberty. Simultaneously they compete to win the Spelling Bee, are serenaded out as they fail to do so, and make a few friends along the way. Characters range from Logan, aged nine, a Christian with two adoptive fathers; Chip, a classic boy scout whose solo song was ‘my unfortunate erection’; the over-enthusiastic ex-champion and host Miss Perretti; and the home-schooled Leaf, who makes his own clothes. With playful tropes like this it would be hard to miss the comedy in this production and I’m glad to say Patch of Blue did it justice.
The focus on characterisation was the real directorial genius of this production. On stage or in the auditorium – as you entered or during group numbers – the characters would chat with you, telling you about themselves and so vividly bringing their songs and backgrounds to life. The lead of the show was Olive, played by St Andrews student Ellie Mason. Before the lights went down she was blathering to me about her hand-made reserved sign for her Dad’s chair, insisting that I had to make sure it stayed on his seat. As the story unfolds we learn that Olive is a severely neglected and distraught child, with her mother away discovering herself in India and her father “taking out on [Olive] what he wants to take out on you [mother]”. This quote came from ‘The I Love You Song’, undoubtedly my favourite scene, where Olive is reunited with her parents, in a day-dream. Her mother, played by drama school graduate Stephanie Golledge, glides onto the stage in a sari soon joined by Olive’s father, played by St Andrews’ Mark Gregory, and the harmonies that follow bring a tenderness to the scene.
Unfortunately St Andrews will be losing Ellie to Canada this coming year, but at least the talent pool is balanced by the return of Mark from his own year abroad. Gregory whizzed about the stage playing not only Olive’s Dad, but also one of the gay Dad’s of the youngest speller and the Bee’s guidance councillor and wanna-be gangsta Mitch Mahoney. His versatility and speedy costume changes should be commended.
Sadly for Olive, ‘The I Love You Song’ is just a dream, which is abruptly shattered by recent bubble graduate Patrick Birch, playing the Vice Principle and host of the Bee. Birch pitched his performance perfectly throughout the show, shifting from slimy chat up lines to anger and back to comedy in a flash of his cheesy grin. Another St Andrews star, and a new face for me, was Meg Asano, playing over-achiever Marcy Park. I can’t help but think there was some truth in the type-casting of character and actress as Asano played piano, did the splits and sang in 6 different languages. The extent of her talent was overwhelming and I hope to see her in many shows to come this year.
Final praise, however, has to go to graduate Alex Howarth and fourth year Caroline McCaffrey for their inspired direction and evident dedication to the production. Reviews of the show at this year’s festival speak for themselves with a nomination for best production by Musical Theatre Matters, a ‘must see’ stamp from the Stage and five stars from more than just me.