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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

TALENT: “natural aptitude or skill,” from the Latin ‘talenta.’ T – A – L – E – N – T.

It should no longer surprise me that Dorset is bursting with young, talented individuals, all of whom deserve a chance at the London stages. The cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee showcases nine such young adults, university graduates all of whom demonstrate outstanding singing and acting abilities.

This musical comedy follows the story of six eccentric students as they compete in the spelling bee in a geographically ambiguous American school, organised by three equally quirky adults. The spellers are thrown into a turbulent journey of discovery, as they begin to realise winning the bee may not be as important as originally thought. It is a witty and charming show, offering a hilarious script dripping with cheeky innuendoes. Perhaps more unusually though is the invitation for four unsuspecting audience members to join the cast onstage and participate in the bee. This reflects not only the good-spirted nature of the audience but the improvisational skills of the cast who are not aware how these unpredictable spellers will respond to the prompts.

Setting the scene is organiser Rona Lisa Piretti as she flashbacks to the moment she won the third annual spelling bee with the word ‘syzygy.’ In this part, Stephanie Walker excels with an angelic soprano voice and personality reminiscent of Matilda’s ‘Miss Honey.’ Throughout, Piretti must cope with the unwelcome advances made by Vice-principal Douglas Panch who, after an ‘incident’ not spoken about at a previous competition, returns as a judge. Jack Dunford characterises this part tremendously well as he demonstrates through his elongated pauses that sometimes it’s what’s not said which is funnier! Completing the trio of adults is Harry Young in the role of Mitch Mahoney, the comfort counsellor and ex-convict who hands out juice boxes to eliminated competitors. Though a slightly smaller role, Harry Young is incredibly convincing, able to elicit laughs simply by his resentful facial expressions and aloof body language. The song ‘Prayer of the Comfort Counselor’ offers an opportunity for Young to display his outstandingly strong vocals.

The cast of awkward pre-pubescent adolescents showcases Gabrielle Holloway as she plays the energetic Logainne SchwarzandGrubinierre. The youngest speller, Logainne must overcome the pressure from her overbearing gay fathers to win the bee. A cross between the Duracell Bunny and Tigger, Holloway offers an impressive comical performance. Whilst her fast-paced speech with a lisp sometimes made it difficult to ascertain her exact lines, this was not to the detriment of her characterisation; I was rooting for her by the end!

Logainne SchwarzandGrubinierre was accompanied by the equally comedic Leaf Coneybear and William Barfee (or should that be Bar ‘FAY’?), played by Ben Chowdhiry and Robert Pike respectively. Whilst the former, a juvenile personality sporting a superhero cape, spells his words correctly under a somewhat hellish possession (call the exorcist!), the latter is aided by his ‘magic foot.’ Both give the audience memorable performances; held as exemplar of comedy done correctly. Barfee’s song ‘Magic Foot,’ gave the whole cast the chance to shine in an impressive choreographed routine.

Jamie-Leigh Parker has the difficult job of characterising the over-achieving, slightly depressed Marcy Parks who laments her success in the song ‘I Speak Six Languages.’ Parker executes the part well, successfully combining deadpan dialogue with comedic inflections. Perhaps the least-quirky character, Olive Ostrovsky, played by Gemma Nielson, is a shy wallflower, highlighting her best friend is her dictionary. Olive comments, if you swap the ‘I’ and ‘O’ around in her name, it becomes ‘I Love,’ and I loved Nielson’s interpretation. Despite the character’s meek exterior, she hides an incredible belting voice, showcased in one of my highlight songs ‘The I Love You Song.’

The stand-out comical performance must go to Christopher Rogers in the part of Chip Tolentino who had the audience in stitches as he cursed how his ‘Unfortunate Erection,’ scuppered his chances of winning. I can easily see Rogers on a West End stage as Princeton in ‘Avenue Q.’ Having said this, each actor was equally strong with the musical giving them their individual chances in the spotlight.

Creative team Ryan Murphy, Jonathan Davis and Kelly Knight have successfully elicited the best from this talented cast, producing a fast-paced, quirky comedy bound to leave you awed by Dorset’s talented youngsters whilst simultaneously clutching your sides after multiple laugh-out-loud moments. The cosy ambience of the Shelley Theatre simply works to the advantage of this intimate musical.

There is another chance to catch The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Shelley Theatre tonight, 5th Sept at 7.30pm. Tickets £15.