A charmingly comic evening combining intelligent dialogue, audacious caricatures of overreaching adolescents, and the cut-throat business of spelling words including ‘weltanschauung’ and ‘gardyloo,’ The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee sizzles with wit and insight. Following the highs and lows of six competing youngsters for the title of champion, this comedy plays out rather like an episode of Toddlers & Tiaras; the same pushy parents; the same abject terror in the eyes of the contestants, and the same notion that nobody has any idea what kind of disorder could erupt when one young hopeful is asked to spell ‘pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis’.
The direction of Mitchell and Simmonds is a testament to the Broadway original, possessing the same vivacity and professionalism that puts the show beyond the realms of amateur theatre. Seated to look down upon the stage, it is as if the viewer has been deliberately allowed a microscopic advantage to analyse each character and discover their idiosyncrasies. Watching each youth in his or her attempts to claim victorious is tumultuous and painful, but even more so in regard to the effect that it has upon the masters of the bee; former champion Rona Lisa Peretti, and Vice Principal Panch. Panch’s character is the standout performance, relishing perfectly in a dead-pan humour and soul-destroying dispassion that highlights the darker themes of loneliness and desperation that derive from the title of ‘Champion Speller’.
A certain amount of audience participation ignited and maintained the warm responses of the evening, keeping the stage abuzz with excited possibility as to whatever embarrassment was to follow. The selection of strong voices and glowing performances also helped to maintain the production up until the very end, by which point the theatre was blazing with cheers in support of the rise and prosperity of the nerd.