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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Donmar Theatre     Spring 2011

This modest little musical was a hit on Broadway a few seasons back, in part because it offered a refreshing contrast to the big flashy Phantom-style shows that were the norm.  But in a theatre that does small-scale productions all the time, it doesn't seem all that special.

You'll spend a pleasant enough ninety minutes at the Donmar, but there won't be any particular highs, and little to stick in your memory as you leave.

The show is based on the curious American tradition of putting bright kids on a stage and challenging them to spell words like lachrymose and syzygy, the competitors being eliminated one by one until there is a local, then state, then national champion, who wins a college scholarship and is never heard of again.

Rachel Sheinkin (book) and William Finn (songs) dig for more humour and local colour by setting it in a small town, with the competition run by local semi-celebrities (a real estate agent and school vice-principal) and featuring kids who are only mildly and comically neurotic.

The bulk of the show is made up of the competition, with many of Finn's generally forgettable songs reflecting the kids' internal monologues as they stand at the microphone and prepare to spell.

There's a half-hearted attempt to give each competitor some depth and dramatic reality with a back story. One is all-but-deserted by her parents, one drilled to exhaustion by hers. The inevitable Asian girl is expected to be perfect in everything, while another kid has been cast by his family as the sweet one, not the smart one. But none of these is developed much beyond my brief descriptions.

So the songs aren't particularly notable and the drama barely registers. That leaves the comedy, which turns out to be the show's strong point.

There's a lot of amiable ridicule of the whole concept, as when a contestant asks for the word for a Jewish prayer aid to be used in a sentence and is offered 'Billy, put down the phylactery - we're Episcopalians.'

Four audience volunteers are recruited to join the competition, and there is some gentle fun at their expense (though no more than they had to expect), and they are also cleverly absorbed into Ann Yee's elementary choreography.

The performers playing the kids are all attractive and enjoyable, though I can't believe that you'd miss much if you saw replacements or understudies. Katherine Kingsley has fun with the trying-too-hard-to-be-glamorous hostess, and Steve Pemberton gets all the good lines - and dryly and expertly makes the most of them - as the quizmaster.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee - Donmar 2011