Review – The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Thursday 15 November 2007

Hoorah for Local One!

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was way down the Whingers’ list of shows to see while they were in New York but thanks to the stage hands strike, it crept up onto their list.

And they are dead chuffed that it did.

It’s 105 minutes (no interval) of comedy and songs centred around a Spelling Bee which apparently is an American educational tradition in which children compete to be the best speller (which Andrew seems to recall led Darlene in Roseanne to observe: “Well, that’s where the big money is”.)

The children are thankfully all played by grown-ups (well, actors) and members of the audience (more on that later) and rather than being a musical comedy, it’s a comedy with some songs in it which is just fine because while the music is OK, the comedy is first rate.

In fact, the Whingers laughed louder and more often than any of the other 600 or so people in the audience. On this basis it would be even more successful in London than on Broadway. Why this hasn’t transferred to London already is a bit of a mystery (it has been running off and on Broadway for almost three years). Do the Americans think we won’t be able to grasp the concept of a Spelling Bee?

Anyway, part of the genius of the show is that four members of the audience are selected to sit with the other “children” on the stage and actively compete in the Spelling Bee. At first they are given easy words, then impossible ones when the time comes for them to drop out of the action.

But more than that, by some clever process (writers on hand? aren’t they all on strike too?) witty lines about the audience members are worked into the show itself. As one victim approached the microphone dressed entirely in black, the Bee announcer gave some biographical detail: “Miss X looks forward to the day her favourite styles become available in colours”.

Of another: “Mr Lombardi intimidates the other spellers by dressing as their dads” and “Mr Lombardi’s parents are Alan Arkin and Robert Blake

Actually, Mr Lombardi appeared to have the last laugh as he correctly spelled “crizzlemum” at the time he was supposed to be leaving the stage although this may have been a very clever and cunning trick and may happen every night.

Anyway, Andrew was so thrilled at the prospect (having missed his chance of a Broadway musical debut in Xanadu) that he’s now trying to persuade Phil to go again tomorrow night so he can apply to be part of the show. Imagine the fun the announcer could have with Andrew’s sartorial choices from the bargain bin at Century 21. At least it would take the heat off Phil who is currently the butt of all Andrew’s jokes due to Phil’s shopping policy of buying new clothes which are indistinguishable from his old ones. This culminated in a most amusing incident yesterday when Phil emerged from a changing room with the words “What do you think?” and Andrew was momentarily struck dumb, unable to identify which item of clothing was the new one.

Anyway, the on-stage audience members also have to take part in dance routines and the prospect of Andrew embarrassing himself is becoming irresistible to Phil who is thinking of resorting to bribery to get Andrew on that stage.
Bee even manages to get a couple of very funny mentions about the strike. So far only Young Frankenstein is the only show the Whingers have seen which have not mentioned it, which is odd because it’s one show which could easily incorporate such a gag.

Anyway, for the record, the Whingers particularly enjoyed Daniel Pearce as Douglas Panch, Jennifer Simard as Rona Lisa Peretti and Stanley Bahorek as Leaf Coneybear.

Must rush.

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8 Responses to “Review – The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”


  1. I’m downright thrilled that you ate this one up. It’s such a gem of a show.


  2. Crizzlemum – but that’s a perfectly cromulent word!

  3. mrschu81 Says:

    I’ve seen it three times! :)


  4. I have indeed heard claims from local punters that Spelling Bee is just too darned American for the West End. A pity, because it’s a charming show, family friendly, and cheap to open and operate – it would be perfect for a smallish house like the Duke of York’s or for a limited run at Trafalgar 1 or the Donmar.

    Re: strike mentions, Xanadu and Spelling Bee both have a heavy amount of ad-libbing written into the script. The former is mostly locked down, though Mary and Jackie get to make a few cracks still (the bit Mary is usually “Short? And Happy? Come on, they’re just hitting the barricades for the first time across the street!”), while Logainne’s rant (where the strike was probably most mentioned) is updated on a weekly basis. The word definitions are rarely changed, though the audience word bank is large and changed every show – I saw the tour twice in one day and all but two of the audience words were different.

  5. Carol Says:

    So pleased you enjoyed Spelling Bee; we thought it was charming and were fairly certain you would enjoy it as well (which is why, no doubt, a number of us recommended it to you).

    As to its being too “American” to fly in the West End, wasn’t that the same thinking that took Hairspray five years to reach your shores?


  6. “As to its being too “American” to fly in the West End, wasn’t that the same thinking that took Hairspray five years to reach your shores?”

    Dunno, I’m from Baltimore. =P

    Hairspray, from what I understand, was just a mess – they wanted the Cambridge when Jerry Springer closed (Marc Shaiman even posted about it over on BWW), then Chicago decided to go in, and then production for the film got greenlit, distracting the creatives. Still, the timing seems to have paid off – the film was fresh in everyone’s minds, which spurred preview sales and the reviews took care of the rest. Personally, I’m surprised that some of the jokes flew in the UK.

  7. Paul Says:

    Glad you guys liked “bee”… I saw it last May and was a speller and was introduced as someone who likes to intimidate the other spellers by dressing like a theatre critic… I don’t know how they got that idea!


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