25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Date 23rd February 2016
Society University of Manchester Musical Theatre Society
Venue Council Chambers, SU
Type of Production Musical
Director Sarah Teale
Musical Director Aine Mallon


Author: Kevin Proctor

‘Spelling Bee’ is perhaps William Finn’s most overtly comedic show and probably his most widely accessible. When at college I was introduced to his ‘Falsettos’ trilogy and became an instant fan. It was no surprise that ‘Spelling Bee’ was equally as witty. I couldn’t help but wonder if this show simply sprouted from a “see how many scarce words you can get into a one act musical without appearing ostentatious”? – it’s quite possible! But, who cares? It’s hilarious, snappy and adorable but like all musical comedies, it’s full of heart!  

The show’s quirky personality seems ideally suited to an intimate venue though the very narrow staging in this layout of the council chambers did present a few awkward moments for both the audience and the cast. Whenever a character was ‘spelling’ they were practically on top of the audience, making the punters on the ends of the front row having to lean forward to get a glimpse of each of the shows key moments. It also seemed a little unnatural to have the panel of adults behind the speller, presenting some awkward staging whenever the speller directly responded to them.   

What’s especially remarkable is the way in which the adult actors disappear into their awkward-age characters and how those characters evolve from broad comic caricatures into more complex figures, each with their own vulnerability and ‘specialness’. This is not only a credit to the writers but to this uniformly sparkling cast. 

It did pose as a little strange that only certain members of the cast were given a mic as I did miss a fair amount of lyrics and dialogue as a result which was frustrating, particularly when those who managed to catch what was being said responded with laughter. I appreciate that this may have been the result of a budget issue but equally amplifying your cast would have been money well spent. 

Audience members are randomly selected to participate as ‘the ensemble’ who are subsequently dragged around the stage in dance numbers and are equally required to spell to stay on stage / in the game. Dispensing hugs and juice boxes are offered to eliminated contestants (cast and audience) as part of the community service requirement of his parole, Mitch (Joe Dickens) who has vigorous moments, not least of them his rousing gospel-style number.  

Each cast member is given their chance to shine, each of them worthy of mention as the calibre of vocals and acting craft on display is of an impressive standard. Georgia Affonso as Logainne didn’t overdo it and ensured she balanced with the rest of the cast which was wholly appreciated, I must admit that when I first heard the lisp I thought it was going to grate and present a ‘too silly’ act but that was not the case as this was, without a doubt, her mightiest and most intelligent performance yet! Eiméar Crealey becomes the emotional centre of the show as Olive whose sad eyes and polite nervous smile did all the work, magic! Phil Moynihan’s unintellectual Leaf was adorable, his wide eyed smile and his reaction when he knew a word was charmed! June Lau’s Marcy illustrates her prowess in all areas, not just spelling, as she pushes the conductor aside to take charge of her own show stopping instrumental! Tyler Holland as the alpha male-in-the-making, Chip, was potent with a terrific number about awkward erections! Jack Hawkins hits the roof with his exceptional William Barfey (Barfée!) which did indeed bring the house down (as they say!) showing us he not only sings exceptionally but is a marvellous comic to boot.   

As the grown-ups (along with the shady Mitch) we had Lucy Scott as a stern and slightly crazed Rona, a former Bee champion and host of this year’s event alongside Jack Harrison as Panch, the schools vice principal looking to recover his dignity after a nervous incident at an earlier bee. 

Musical Direction was kept in check by Àine Mallon who had the luxury to work with such competent vocalists and put together and subsequently led a sturdy ensemble of musicians.    Director, Sarah Teale, leaded the production to feat exposing and balancing the parody, silliness and warmth to create the ideal poise for this show though the setup of the performance area needed to be re addressed. 

Like ‘A Chorus Line’, this is a show about a diverse group thrown together in a highly competitive environment who discover and reveal much about themselves as they fight for selection. The drive to win ultimately becomes secondary as ‘Spelling Bee’ finds the beauty in being a runner-up.