The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Vic Theatre Company unpacks the battered plastic lunchbox of adolescence in their newest production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, playing at MTC’s Lawler Theatre.

Andrew Hondromatidis, Teresa Duddy, Sage Douglas. Photo by James Terry
Andrew Hondromatidis, Teresa Duddy, Sage Douglas. Photo by James Terry

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee pretty much does what it says on the tin. As an audience, we witness a group of ten of Putnam County’s brightest young spellers (Caitlin Mathieson, Andrew Hondromatidis, Sage Douglas, Teresa Duddy, Henry Brett and James Coley, plus four surprise audience participants) battle for supremacy in an epic literary smack down. Only one can claim glory, and for every other, the crushing disappointment of elimination, delivered with the chime of a bell and the gift of a consolatory juice box, is just one wrong letter away.

While The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a delightfully quaint and charming gem of a musical, beneath the surface it actually provides quite a poignant allegory for the wider pandemonium of adolescence. Within the microcosm of the Bee we see familiar tropes played out – the search for individuality and identity, the struggle against adult authority, the angst of dawning sexuality, and the viciousness of social politics – all within a superficially over-hyped environment in which the stakes seem ultimate.

Even the adult characters, graced with the perspective of knowing that there is so much more to life than the apparent singularity of a spelling competition, behave with little more insight as they clumsily navigate similar fears and crises.

The design of this production is simple, bright and wonderfully affective. William Bobbie Stewart’s ‘gymnasium’ incorporates yellow tarpaulins festively hemmed with badminton nets and garnished with enough multi-coloured bunting to make even the most enthusiastic of County Fair organisers blush. The whole space is adorned with delightful K–12 arts’n’crafts projects – paper plate bees, hand painted school sports banners, and a larger than life papier-mache Jesus Christ – that perfectly situate the Bee in a world of hand-made scholastic nostalgia.

Bernie Bernard’s choreography extends this motif of classroom resourcefulness, utilising every resource available from plastic chairs to discarded gym shoes to transcend the modest pageantry of the Bee and create a spectacle that would put any rock eisteddfod to shame.

The modest five-piece orchestra, under the direction of Trevor Jones and clad in ill-fitting school uniforms, provide strong musical accompaniment to the impressive talents of a perfectly complementary cast of misfits. Of particular note, Rebecca Moore anchors the show as the sweetly nostalgic (and occasionally vindictive) Rona Lisa Perretti, past Spelling Bee champion-come-announcer. David Spencer is also captivating as slightly unstable adjudicator Vice-Principal Douglas Panch, whose largely improvised interaction with the contestants are flawlessly funny.

Spelling Bee is well known for its incorporation of improvisational elements, most notably its ambitious audience participation. Within the tightly rehearsed structure of a musical production, these free agents and potential elements of chaos are wrangled with surprising dexterity and precision – a testament to the cast and director Benjamin Giraud – as the cast deftly improvise around them and even occasionally include them in portions of rehearsed choreography.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a very smart and surprising little musical, and Vic Theatre Company’s whimsical production is sure to warm the heart and stimulate the cerebellum.

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