While not hugely popular in Australia, competitive spelling has, for almost a century, been rife in the United States at local, state and even televised national levels. A refreshing alternative to the American child beauty pageants, students from all over the country to compete following sometimes very intense studies of affixes and etymologies, and even other languages. In light of this, one might be quick to presume that a musical about spelling would in fact be incredibly dull, repetitive and lacking in character development. The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee is certainly not reflective of any of those things. A hilarious musical full of clever wit, heart and strong characterisation, Camberwell Grammarians Theatre Company did well to select such a fun and engaging show for their first staging of a musical. As a company in its infancy, CGTC presented an exceptionally high quality performance with the utmost professionalism and incredible visions fulfilled. It was a genuinely enjoyable to experience.
Upon walking into the theatre, the audience is met with an amazingly appropriate set, which was designed with incredible authenticity and exceptional commitment to the concept. All elements looked as though they could have been created by members of the community with a very ‘homemade’ vibe – streamers, bunting, paper plate bees, painted banners – all put together so flawlessly. This extended to particular props including a very cleaver Taj Mahal and a puppet Jesus, each of which fit the theme perfectly. Lighting worked well to accentuate the set and was similarly appropriate for the concept – simple enough to reflect a community feel, effective enough to emphasise the intended mood. Costuming was also very simple yet effective, reflecting the characters’ personas exceptionally well.
The piece relies very heavily on the ability to improvise, exhibit a good control over comedic timing and stay true to the distinct characterisations. The direction was exceptionally strong, allowing for these elements to flourish whilst also ensuring obvious and meaningful character development did not fall behind. Additionally, while audience interaction is not all too uncommon in theatre, Spelling Bee actually includes four audience members in the show, having them register as spellers and compete against the characters. The direction allowed for the cast to very effectively work with and around the audience members on stage, which created some exceptionally hilarious moments.
Choreography was well spaced, appropriate in style and definitely effective, while considering in the capacity of the cast. It was particularly good to see the cast participate in the choreography with and around the added audience members and have it still look just as appealing.
Music direction was excellent, the small band on stage sounding exceptional together, as did the cast. Unfortunately, there were times when the quality of the sound interfered with the audiences’ ability to truly immerse themselves in what was being sung, said or played, with several hiccups throughout the show. This however did not take away from the amazing work of the theatre company as a whole and is likely to have been remedied throughout the season.
While Spelling Bee has a relatively small cast, each and every character on stage was engaging and truly representative of the stereotypes that they were representing. Sophie Cheeseman and Stephen Bennie serve as the bee’s judges Rona Lisa Peretti and Douglas Panch. The pair constrast each other brilliantly – Cheeseman as the very structured, prim and proper over-achiever, Bennie as an apathetic Vice Principal. Cheeseman’s vocals were absolutely brilliant and fit the character to a tee. As the competition was ‘broadcast’ on televisions on either side of the stage, Cheeseman looked every bit the part on screen as well as on stage. Bennie’s execution of the origins of words and sentences they may be found in was superbly hilarious. His ability to say some of the things that he said while keeping in his very dispirited character was truly exceptional.
Cody Arthur as Mitch Mahoney provided a great surprise for the audience – his tough exterior at the beginning of the piece did well to act as an extreme juxtaposition to his flamboyancy in ‘The Prayer of the Comfort Counsellor’. Following this number, the character did seem to be left wanting for a total return back to the tough guy persona in order to maintain the magnitude of that number. His performance as one of Logainne’s dads was actually a crowd favourite and was very well recieved.
As the spellers, each cast member was exceptionally consistent in their portrayal. Andy Richards as Chip Tolentino did this very well throughout his time on stage, ensuring to keep up his hormone fuelled teenage boy act up at all times, notably when not the scene’s focus. His performance of ‘My Unfortunate Erection’ was a hit with the crowd.
Daniel Kim as Leaf Coneybear was exceptionally energetic and did well to keep this up for the show’s entirety. While some of his excitement got in the way of diction and therefore found some of what was being conveyed become lost, his switch from air-head to brainiac was great.
William Barfee, played by Alex Frank, quickly won the hearts of the audience. Frank’s accent work and accompanying body language was spot on and was key in indicating development in the character as William begins to form a crush on Olive. Similarly, Jacqueline Irvine’s ability to take her character Logainne through hyper-excitement to malicious attitudes to a sense of maturity was excellent. Her engagement with Logainne’s backstory was an excellent help to the audience follow along.
The two standout performances of the night came from Morgan Heynes and Caitlin Mathieson as Marcy Park and Olive Ostrovsky respectively. Both girls were completely their character from start to end, with vocals that were exceptionally impressive and character nuances that were exceptionally effective and very consistent. As Marcy, Heynes was a knockout – her performance was very authentic and very well calculated. Her vocal performance sounded as though it could be found on any professional cast recording. Mathieson’s charisma and vocal strength were to be admired. She helped to create a character that the audience truly felt a connection to, and this was definitely endearing. I look forward to seeing both ladies in future productions.
It is a real shame that the season only runs for one week, as it is certainly an exceptional work. CGTC have certainly made a lot of fans in this, their first attempt at a musical – they definitely look as though they’re heading toward being a force to be reckoned with on the amateur scene.