Nothing says ‘Saturday night’ like watching kids spell ridiculous words that I’ve never even heard of. Luckily for my reputation it was all in the spirit of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the latest production by Prima. For two hours, the audience was thoroughly engaged and entertained with the onstage antics of the spelling contestants and judges. While the production had its flaws, it certainly succeeded in delivering an enjoyable evening to those that attended.
Overall, the cast delivered solid performances, with strong vocals and even stronger enthusiasm from everyone on stage (including the audience volunteers who clearly relished their time in the spotlight). At times, the pace was a bit too fast which resulted in rushed dialogue and early queues. As someone who was unfamiliar with the show I sometimes felt lost, and between the echoing sound in the hall and the poor diction of some singers, it would take me a minute or two to catch up to the storyline. The occasional pause and deep breath would have slowed the show slightly and resulted in a more immersive experience for the viewer.
My standout performance by far was Olive Ostrovsky (played wonderfully by Melanie Bolovan). Her earnest delivery was a thin veil over the emotional turmoil that was laid bare in “The I Love You Song”, which for me was a personal highlight of the show. It was heartfelt and honest, yet held the sweet naivety of childhood.
Vice Principal Douglas Panch may be one of the smallest roles, but Andrew Haden made the most of every line and moment he had. His deadpan delivery had the audience in stitches, and had us anticipating his next witty quip or inappropriate definition of the spelling word.
Casting a female in a male role is always a risky move… will it come off as kitsch or clever? In the experienced hands of Georgina Purdie, it was definitely a clever move. As William Barfee, her comedic timing and complete embodiment of the character gave the appropriate level of heightened reality without overdoing it, and could draw the eye without overshadowing her cast mates. My single (and very small) concern was that the drawling accent occasionally came at the sacrifice of lyrical clarity – but these moments were few and brief.
The Sandgate Town Hall has a rather unforgiving setup for productions that feature a live band, with a tiny stage and no orchestra pit. Having the musicians onstage ended up being more of a distraction from the main action, and I believe sacrificed precious stage space that would have given the actors space to move more naturally. Nowhere was this more evident than during the few choreographed musical numbers, where the actors seemed to be falling over themselves and unsure of where they were meant to be. During “Pandemonium” what should have been a controlled chaos in fact came off messy and unfocused. With such tight conditions it may have been wiser to stick to simplified routines without as many moving pieces, and then focusing on polish and execution.
There were a few technical elements that let down the actors and momentarily drew the audience out of the spell of the theatre. On several occasions a cast member would speak but their microphone hadn’t been turned on, or the spotlight wasn’t ready for them. These moments are usually tightened up over the show run, but it would have been great to nail them by this third show. Sound levels were another concern, with the opening number “The Twenty-Fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” suffering from loud microphones and an even louder band – resulting in a strong echo around the small hall that left everyone competing to be understood. This seemed to balance out by Act Two, and the larger ensemble numbers became much more enjoyable.
The Prima team have created a delightful show that is undeniably joyous and infectious. With some technical tweaks and a little more polish it could really be taken to the next level – but even as it stands, there was no doubt that every single audience member enjoyed the show immensely.