Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

"Where fun and heart reigned supreme." SCENE attends the latest CHMS winter musical... 5 stars.

(Image: CHMS)

Last weekend we took a visit to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, where a cohort of young hopeful champions congregated to spell words, make friends, and maybe even sing a song or two.

Hosted by The Central Hall Musical Society, the Bee was a wonderfully energetic time where we laughed, cried and cheered as these young competitors spelled their way to victory or despair.

In all honesty, this production was a standout of CHMS’s long repertoire. The comedy brims with opportunities to show off a stunning cast of comedic and slightly tragic actors, and the small ensemble production lends its self perfectly to the intimate space of the Friargate theatre and the eager audience that had gathered.

The production boasted an amazing atmosphere, enhanced with little references to York (i.e. Long boi, big duck fan) and immersed in audience interaction. The intimate theatre threw the audience directly into the spelling bee action and this was used incredibly well to include audience throughout the show. 

As interactive as they come, the production gives every audience member a chance to participate in the bee, from the four additional spellers who were plucked from audience upon arrival, to the spellers’ family members who receive waves and high fives, and those who are the lucky recipients of flying sweets!

At any moment any audience member can join the cast, and this unpredictability not only makes the show a blast to watch but works well to draw everyone in to the chaotic atmosphere of Putnam County and its spelling bee.

In fact, Vision’s very own editor Kaitlyn was asked to participate as a ‘speller’ along with 3 other audiences members during our visit. Asked to sit on stage for a large portion of act one, spelling words and doing whatever the cast told them, this element of audience participation was immensely fun for both the participants and the audiences.

Kaitlyn looked terrified (claims Anna). Such participation was very seamless – of course you could tell who was a volunteer and who wasn’t – but the interaction between volunteers and cast was well orchestrated, and we loved the little ad libs the cast created.

The cast is particularly impressive, with every actor boasting impeccably well constructed characterisation. First to be eliminated, Steven Hawley’s boy-scout Chip is equally adept at chucking sweets while swinging as he is at hiding his “unfortunate erection”.

Scarlett Clague’s “I’m not all business” Marcy is prim and proper whether frantically spelling, melting down or cartwheeling (while singing!). Stacey Hose’s Logainne is sweet and powerful, with her gay dads (played by Ollie Kingston and Steven Hawley) adding a perfect touch of humour and harshness.

Oliver Betts creates an awkward and conflicted William BarFEE, whose magic foot is the marvel of the bee.

Ollie Kingston as Leaf
(Image: CHMS)

Ollie Kingston’s childish and heartfelt Leaf is an absolute ball of energy, bouncing around the stage in what is the standout comic performance of the night. As the show went on Leaf’s lightup shoes got brighter, Ollie’s hair got bigger and the audience’s appreciation of the loveable young speller only grew.

We certainly never thought a university student could pull off the energy of an 10 year old so perfectly. A particularly gut-wrenching moment was when Leaf was eliminated from the bee, and with one flick of his hand, Ollie turned his light up shoes blue, eliciting vast “awwwws” across the room.

The saddest moment of the surprisingly touching musical was the ‘I love You Song’ sung by Mia Scudds. The emotional climax of the production, Mia’s character Olive is reminiscing about what it would be like if her parents had shown up to cheer her on.

With a father stuck at work and a mother who abandoned them for meditation in India, the remarkably cheerful Olive fantasises about her absent parents hugging her and saying “I love you”.

With Ollie Kingston appearing again as Olive’s Father and Ellie Carrier as her Mother, this trio is gut-wrenching and beautifully performed. The harmonies layer wonderfully, and we were certainly left crying along with Olive from the audience.

Rounding out the remarkable cast are the adults – previous champion Rona Perretti played by a kind but competitive Ellie Carrier, ex-principal Douglas Panch – played by an entertaining and clearly lovesick Eric Iannaccone, and tough ‘comfort counsellor’ Mitch Mahoney played by the fabulously stone-faced Ariel Schreiber. Mitch was a key feature of our other favourite song – The Goodbye Song – which played every time a speller was eliminated.

Loaded with apple juices, hugs and a tough hand, Mitch guided the cast (and audience participants) through their loses with great humour, as the successful spellers danced around cheerfully. We just adored the contrast, chaos and confusion these mini scenes created.

With catchy songs, brilliant humour, a stunning cast, and hilarious audience participation, this was truly one of the most entertaining musicals we had ever watched at CHMS.

We left the production with faces sore from laughing, and feeling like all of the spelling bee competitors needed a hug! A testament to the powerful acting chops of a cast of uni students who accurately and passionately brought to life the energy, emotions and excitement of young children competing in a spelling bee.

With a perfectly intimate stage, energetic lighting, a fabulously present band, and intimate direction by Emilia Stevens that allowed fun and heart to reign supreme, this particular spelling bee was just a joy to witness (and participate in)!

Central Hall Musical Society return to the stage next semester, performing Into The Woods at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre from the 22nd to the 24th February 2024.