There are some shows that create an almost insatiable urge in you to run up on stage and join in the jazz handing fun. The Donmar Warehouse’s frivolous The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee undoubtedly falls into this camp, but for a small handful of the audience they get to do just that.
Audience participation, the search for love, teenage angst, competitiveness, improvisation and a surprise appearance by Jesus; William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s musical comedy has it all. Starring Katherine Kingsley as Rona Lisa Perretti, a living, breathing Barbie doll of a woman, and Steve Pemberton as the deadpan Vice Principal Douglas Panch, this musical never takes itself too seriously but has the talent on stage to pull this nonchalant attitude off with polished effortlessness.
Taking place inside a high school gym, six over-achievers, up to their eyes in issues, have gathered to take part in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. A ‘comfort counsellor’ – played by a not so comforting looking bee mascot on community service – waits on the sidelines ready with a carton of juice and a hug to lead the losers off stage, while Perritti and Panch sit behind a table stacked high with words to test this most motley crew of kids.
A spelling bee may not sound like the most appetising subject for a musical – especially in Britain where we arguably lack the necessary appreciation for any competition that doesn’t involve a ball – but the witty wordplay, ridiculous jokes and sheer energy of the production is infectious and, as long as you can brush off the frightening glimpse into the world of pushy parents, it is a truly feel-good show.
While Kingsley shines as the competition host and Pemberton provides some of the biggest laughs using his surreal brand of comedy to improvise with four members of the audience who are brave enough to take part in the contest, the stars of the show are undoubtedly the kids themselves. There is William Barfee, whose social awkwardness and internal rage would make him an easy target for bullying if it were not for his magic foot, Chip Tolentino, whose greatest claim to success is being the fastest wood rubber in the boy scouts, Olive Ostrovsky, dressed like a human marshmallow and desperately seeking the love of her estranged mother, and the lisp-inflicted Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere whose two dads won’t stand for losers.
After a season that has included Derek Jacobi in King Lear and Stephen Sondheim’s Passion, no one could accuse the Donmar Warehouse of being afraid to try something new. They have even reinvented the space with Christopher Oram’s design replacing the seating and transforming the theatre into a hugely realistic looking high school gym.
While some might argue that The 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee lacks the artistic intensity of the Donmar Warehouse’s typical offerings, no one could dispute that what it lacks in elegance or intellect, it more than makes up for with heart, relentless energy and an eye-watering amount of colour.