When it comes to boundless energy and complete commitment no one does a fluffy musical quite like the Americans. So it is with the extremely bubbly The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee currently creating a buzz at the Donmar Warehouse. Rachel Sheinkin’s caustic script crackles with dirty humour whilst a vibrant cast hit this school gym (Go Pugs!) with real panache. Disappointingly, however, this is a musical that never quite takes flight.
Six school kids (and three intrepid audience members) are out to get to Nationals. In a tale as old as time our gang encompass a little bit of everything, the dreamy simpleton, the leading man (in this case cub-scout), the aggressive loner, the softly spoken love interest. But Sheinkin has also thrown some lovely curve balls our way with Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, a lesbian 6th grader, nicely defying expectation.
The cast are a deeply likeable bunch who attack their cartoonish roles with admirable energy and affectionate flare
As each child steps up to the mic we get glimpses into their lives. Their issues are just what one expects but none-the-less poignant for that, parental pressure nightmares and sexual awakening embarrassments mingle with abandonment tales and overachiever rebellions. Jamie Lloyd’s robust direction and Sheinkin’s rude winks to the audience stop the sweet from becoming saccharine and Ann Yee’s jazzy choreography keeps this static competition moving nicely. The cast are a deeply likeable bunch who attack their cartoonish roles with admirable energy and affectionate flare.
But at the heart of every musical is the music and William Finn’s pedestrian tunes leave one feeling decidedly underwhelmed. His lyrics border on dull and his melodies are unimaginative and at points frustratingly predictable.
But even Finn can’t quite sink this buoyant ship. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee will certainly raise a few giggles from even the most cynical (perhaps even particularly them) viewer. This show spells fun; it’s just a pity it doesn’t spell brilliant.
*** (3 stars)
Runs until 2nd April 2011