William Finn’s Spelling Bee will play until the 24th of March at the Broadway Studio Theatre, Catford. I urge every reader to hurry along for its final week. I would also implore any reader who has the power to orchestrate a transfer to do so. This was a tight ensemble piece with a grotesquely talented and versatile cast of Actor/Musicians.
The show, which has become something of a cult hit, finds its comedic fuel in the idiosyncrasies of the brilliant, juvenile spelling finalists. Each has a remarkable method of finding the correct spelling for some of the most obscure and bizarre polysyllables you’ll ever hear. To exacerbate their plight, members of the audience were asked to pose as fellow entrants and were given taxing challenges such as “cat” and “Mexican”.
The show itself is part of a reactionary movement to the “doom and gloom” days of the Broadway Musical with a string of beautiful, epic tragedies like Phantom and Les Miserables. Along with Avenue Q and Book of Mormon it follows a trend of contemporary musicals with a tremendous sense of joie de vivre that still have a lot to say. Interestingly, there isn’t much of a story. The Spelling Bee is a platform for (often musical) glimpses of the lives of each of the contestants, offering reasons for their brilliance ranging from neglect to smothering. In fact, if I were to cavil about the show, it would be with the backstories. Particularly the slightly offensive portrayal of the overbearing gay fathers who bully their daughter into an intellectual and political ideal of their own: It was a sad, unneeded subplot.
That said, the children’s moments in the spotlight are, without exception, delicious. Played by an entirely adult cast, I cannot convey how little one’s suspension of disbelief is employed. The detailed and intimate portrait of each of the children is exceptional. Miri Gellert’s Logainne is charming; Gellert has a remarkably strident voice that she uses deftly as this prepubescent activist with a longing to impress. Bex Robert’s Leaf was delightfully vague and endearing. His octave-slide “what’s” when presented with a word will stay with me always. Benjamin Stratton had the challenging job of turning one of his numbers into an Act Two-Opener in a piece that originally had no interval, and how he rose to the challenge (those who have seen the show must forgive the excruciating erectile pun). Will Jennings makes an incandescent debut as William; his “Magic Foot” is worth the ticket price alone. Tanya Shield’s Olive is utterly enchanting, green and tragic and Jacqui Sanchez’ “six languages” number is a showstopper. Presiding over the Spelling Bee, offering words, comic interjections and some excellent singing were Caroline Rodgers and Brian McCann as Rona and Vice Principle Panch, respectively.
If it sounds as though I’m gushing it is because the effusion of these “children” is contagious and they are such a strong, deserving ensemble. The thing that they all do so well with Finn’s challenging score is to subtly manoeuvre from child character voice to quite sophisticated singing with seamless transition. Their energy and the shows’ quality warrant a second innings. I do hope it’s a simple question of from my keyboard to someone’s ears.
Review by Tom Read Wilson
Monday 18th March 2013