The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Reviewed – 31st May 2018
“The cast were superb, with the quality of sound leaving a lasting impression after the show was through”
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is a musical mouthful to explain to your friends, but it delivers the plot of this 2005 Broadway musical succinctly and accurately. The story follows the fortunes of six students in their local final of the all-American tradition of the Spelling Bee, each with a good shot at winning and with their own story to tell of how they got there.
What sets this musical apart is its use of audience participation, inviting four audience members up onto stage in Act One to also take part as finalists. Watching each audience member attempt to spell with varying levels of willingness and success was very entertaining, and the novelty and improvised nature in the early rounds stove off any doldrum due to the repetitive nature of the Spelling Bee, keeping it entertaining for longer than would have been possible without it.
The songs giving insight to each character’s life, rather than necessarily moving the plot along, become more tiresome in the second half when the contest becomes a simple whittling down to find the winner. I found the building blocks of the show including plot, music and lyrics to be unimaginative, and was surprised to learn that the original Broadway production earnt a Tony award for Best Book of a Musical. However, the piece was produced and performed with such enjoyment that I couldn’t help but enjoy it myself.
The cast were superb, with the quality of sound leaving a lasting impression after the show was through. Elizabeth Chadwick as the Bee’s facilitator, Rona Lisa Peretti, has a stunningly crystal clear voice, and masterfully guides the action with it. The actors portrayals are also acutely funny, with Michael Watson-Gray as Douglas Panch, the slightly unstable school Vice Principal using each of the required spelling words in wickedly funny sentences. TJ Lloyd as William Barfee and Jeannie May as Marcy Park also had great humour in students who were confidently unphased by the event others were so eager about.
Set design by Victoria Francis is impressive, turning the small studio space of the Drayton Arms Theatre into a miniature school gym with letters littered across the stage, stickered on the floor walls and chairs of the gym. Similarly the choreography by Adam Haigh did well to liven up the action within such tight constraints.
With the components given, this show could have been a drag. But with such joy, care and attention applied by all involved, it instead brightened up my evening.
Reviewed by Amber Woodward
Photography by Alex Harvey-Brown
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Drayton Arms until 16th June
Previously reviewed at this venue
Reviewed – 4th January 2018
“the first half lacked the sense of fun and direction that the second half successfully delivered”
Having gone through the majority of my life knowing nothing of Bananaman, I was intrigued to learn more about this parody of a superhero and more importantly how a musical could be written about him.
For the uninitiated he was introduced in February 1980 on the back cover of Nutty, a new DC Thompson produced comic. He was portrayed as a hero with the ‘muscles of twenty men though with the brains of twenty mussels’. Following the success of his comic book appearances a TV cartoon was commissioned featuring the high profile voices of The Goodies. The series finished in 1986 but today visitors to Beano.com can indulge themselves in trivia and the original videos. Bananaman continues to be a popular figure in Beano.
Leon Parris has taken the original storyline and written the book, music and lyrics to this entertaining, yet bonkers production. Mark Perry directs what seems to be a cross between pantomime and a Footlights comedy show. Designer Mike Leopold has made the most of the Playhouse Large’s open space with a two level set surrounded by blown up Beano images. The atmosphere is cemented by TV theme tunes playing as the audience enters.
The story explores Bananaman’s origins when weedy Eric Wimp gains super powers which in turn leads to a series of often comical misadventures along the way with (a talking) Crow, love interest Fiona and the bumbling Chief O’Reilly whilst all the time having to endure the awful food prepared by his loving mother. It’s a classic good over evil storyline with our hero attempting to defeat the villains Dr Gloom, General Blight and the Mad Magician.
A fine cast has been assembled to get hold of the content and on my visit they brought laughter and cheer to a very responsive audience who rewarded the hard working team with a standing ovation.
Mark Newnham (from All or Nothing and Sunny Afternoon) has a great voice and plays the part of Eric Wimp well and Emma Ralston is a terrific Fiona Mullins. Jodie Jacobs takes on the role of Crow bringing her strong singing voice to the fore whilst carrying out the difficult job of being the ventriloquist making Crow come to life. TJ Lloyd is a very funny Chief O’Reilly and Matthew McKenna is everything you’d want the square jawed and muscled Bananaman to be.
Standout performances come from Marc Pickering as Dr Gloom and Carl Mullaney as the camp General Blight. Pickering is quite amazing and worth the price of the ticket alone.
Disappointingly I found the sound to be rather muddled and often overpowered the singers to such an extent that at times it was difficult to hear the words that were being sung. The lighting was basic yet reasonably effective.
Whilst I enjoyed the show I felt that the first half lacked the sense of fun and direction that the second half successfully delivered. I’m sure many Bananaman fans will fall in love with this production, though others may find it just a little too puerile to be really enjoyable and worthy of another star.
Reviewed by Steve Sparrow
Photography by Pamela Raith
Southwark Playhouse until 20th January 2018