25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
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
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.'
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
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.
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