Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

5 star rating
In their trademark style, MKEC Productions offer a polished revival that gleams with appealing humour and adept characterisations - a wonderfully entertaining, fab and funny night out.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Drayton Arms Theatre

Image: Drayton Arms Theatre

Closes here: Saturday 16 June 2018

Rachel Sheinkin; conceived by Rebecca Feldman

William Finn

William Finn

Adam Haigh


The spellers:

Chip Tolentino - Aaron Jenson

Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere - Lottie Johnson

Leaf Coneybear - Danny Whelan

William Barfee - TJ Lloyd

Marcy Park - Jeannie May

Olive Ostrovsky - Thea Jo Wolfe

The adults:

Rona Lisa Perretti - Elizabeth Chadwick

Douglas Panch - Michael Watson-Gray

Mitch Mahoney - Inti Conde


Six awkward spelling champions learn that winning (and losing) isn't everything.

An eclectic group of six mid-pubescent children vie for the spelling championship of a lifetime.

While candidly disclosing hilarious and touching stories from their home lives, the tweens spell their way through a series of words, hoping never to hear the soul-crushing, pout-inducing, life un-affirming "ding" of the bell that signals a spelling mistake.

Six spellers enter; one speller Wins!

At least the losers get a juice box.

Featuring a fast-paced, wildly funny and touching book by Rachel Sheinkin and a truly fresh and vibrant score by William Finn, this bee is one unforgettable experience.

A riotous ride, complete with audience participation, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a delightful den of comedic genius.

ActDrop reviews

Peter Brown

Performance date: Thursday 31 May 2018
Review star rating image

For the uninitiated, let's get some explanation out of the way.

The basic idea of a 'spelling bee' is that contestants compete against each other in spelling words - with words usually getting more difficult as the competition progresses.

And if you're wondering why it's called a 'bee', it seems to have been derived from the concept of a 'get together', often for community work.

So, I suppose one could describe this lexical endeavour as a kind of communal spelling competition.

Still apparently enormously popular in the USA, these competitions are largely targeted at tweens (under 16s) and that is the age group of the 6 competitors in this musical depiction of one such bee.

I doubt that it would make for a very compelling, full-length musical if the only things we had to watch were several young people repetitively spelling words - even if delivered through music.

Though we do indeed witness the competitors spelling out designated words - and a considerable number of them - there's quite a lot more to this musical enterprise and a lot of fun to be had along the way.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Elizabeth Chadwick (Rona) - photo: Alex Harvey-Brown at Savannah Photographic

We're met on arrival by Elizabeth Chadwick's bubbly hostess Rona Perretti and chat with some of the contestants as we settle into our seats.

And an additional layer in the overall format is that 4 members of the audience get roped-in at the start of the show to join the competitors on stage.

That on its own provides an extra level of humorous appeal, but the fun is further milked from the situation with inventive, comic introductions for these additional competitors.

One inspired reference to The Stage's Mark Shenton struck exactly the right humorous chord, especially among the press pack in the house.

Along the way, though, we also find out a bit more about the spellers through some of the songs which, though they never quite burn an indelible impression on one's brain, are more than good enough to evoke exceptional company singing and to allow for gear changes in overall mood and to paint suitable character portraits.

The second half of the show doesn't quite match up to the first in terms of comedy, even if the first song after the interval is a keenly observed, somewhat risqué description of one aspect of early adolescence.

Given that most of the cast are adults playing teens, I suspect that most of them would have done pretty-much anything to get into this show - there are mouth-watering parts on offer in the speller ensemble, but the adult parts also have more than their fair share of the inventive comedy.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Drayton Arms Theatre

The Spellers - photo by Alex Harvey-Brown at Savannah Photographic

Wigs - in an assortment of garish colours - abound in Adam Haigh's adroit production that embodies a suitably goofy mood to it that fits perfectly with the situational concept and the age-group of the contest participants and idiosyncratic nature of their characters.

Among the adults, we find a 'comfort counsellor' (well-played by Inti Conde) who has been allocated the job of handing out apple juice to those who hear the dreaded bell signifying an incorrect spelling and heralding elimination.

The counsellor is actually a beefy felon, somewhat surprisingly doing community service.

MKEC Productions are carving-out a well-deserved reputation for highly professional, polished and enormously watchable shows that attract gifted actors and singers.

And the company has an insightful knack of picking-up on off-beat, lesser known musical offerings, avoiding the repetitive treadmill of the more run-of-the-mill revivals.

And Spelling Bee is just such a production.

Honed and crafted pretty much to perfection - with hugely confident performances all-round, powerful ensemble and individual singing, meticulous direction and choreography - Spelling Bee is a wonderfully entertaining, funny and fab night out.

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