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The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Published on Sunday, 19 August 2012
4

4 stars

C venues - C (venue website)
Musicals
1-13, 15-27 Aug, 6:45pm-8:05pm
Reviewed by Lee Zhao

 Recommended for age 12+ only.

Competitive spelling bees seem to be an inherently American concept, and almost anachronistic in an era of text-speak and autocorrect. But with films such as Spellbound, such competitions are no longer wholly alien to those on this side of the Atlantic. For anyone who remains unfamiliar, rest assured, very little prerequisite knowledge is needed to appreciate this musical: merely that these contests, usually between schoolchildren, are taken very, very seriously.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was originally conceived as an improvisational play before premiering on Broadway, and this shines through with the cast required to be in character and interact at length with the audience as they file in. Members of the public are also chosen to participate in the first half of the competition, with scope for the moderators to improvise their introductions and use-of-their-given-word-in-a-sentence. However, with words such as 'xerophthalmiology' on the list of challenges, all participants are sent back to their seats at predictable moments.

Although the story follows the course of the bee from start to finish, worked into the normal proceedings are daydreams, flashbacks and montages. Credit must go to cast and crew for making these abrupt transitions feel seamless with slick choreography and lighting. Nevertheless, with a static setting, it is the quirky characters that drive this musical.

So it was excellent to see how each actor of Patch of Blue Theatre thoroughly inhabited their role. With the connection made before the show even starts, I forgot that the eliminations are scripted, and began to root for my favourite. However I did feel some of the performances were slightly overdone, perhaps trying too hard to steal the show. The subtler, edgier side of the script was at times in danger of being drowned by farce.

Ironically, for a musical about words, the words do not always comfortably scan – but, as with all productions of established works, it would be unfair to dwell on my misgivings on the musical itself. As for the music, the writers certainly had more experienced Broadway singers in mind: there are a lot of numbers with big, long, top notes. Sadly it was in these moments that the youth of this production showed through, as the vocals tended to stray off-key. Many of the voices have probably not fully developed, to the extent of being truly comfortable hitting those notes every day for three weeks in a venue with an unsympathetically dry atmosphere.  Still, though the vocals were at times wayward, the band was spot-on.

All that aside, this remains a very enjoyable musical and an excellent follow-up to this team's highly acclaimed show from last year's Fringe, Godspell. I hazard a guess that few on the Fringe will have seen a previous production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. With an ensemble as enthusiastic and as strong as Patch of Blue Theatre, I reckon you will be hard-pressed to get a chance to participate in a much better one.

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FROM OUR ARCHIVES

These are archived reviews of shows from Edinburgh 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.

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