“A musical for those who love the catchy, the unexpected, or want a chance to take part in the Putnam Spelling Bee for themselves”Sarika Datta

It was a review of Godspell, last Lent’s Magdalene Musical Production, that suggested the Magdalene College Cripps Auditorium might be better suited to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This year’s production was pretty much automatically chosen from that.

“It’s a familiar competition format,” director Leo Béar tells me, “just with larger-than-life characters”. As they step forward, each of the spelling bee’s contestants is revealed in full glory – their characters showcasing the different ways they have grown up; their personalities exaggerated but relatable – even as they all lead lives governed, defined and described by long words. The trivial spelling bee (I know, how dare I!) becomes a platform for profound revelation and life stories. It’s easy for the final message – that competition is not the important part – to seem like a cliché, but this play goes further to turn that on its head: it’s the mutual respect between the characters that comes from not winning that is important.

The play is intensely funny, with catchy songs that are part of what drew Musical Director Joanna Cheng to it in the first place. I never thought I’d hear the word ‘erection’ sung so many times by a pretend pubescent boy, and at many points in the rehearsal the cast is left in fits of laughter. But there are also times when they are on the verge of tears, Leo tells me, as the musical characterises itself by its shifts: silence to explosion of action; calm control to pandemonium; hilarity to tragedy. ‘Life is random and unfair,’ the children sing, and it is this randomness, haphazardness, the threat of the unexpected, which haunts the entire play.

Béar describes the play as hyper-realistic. It plays out in real time, featuring members of the audience in the play itself, genuinely trying their best to win the spelling bee, and the characters not at centre-stage at any single moment are constantly interacting in the background. This seems to be a very real scene at an American Country spelling bee. The children’s stories are ones we all recognise, just in an exaggerated form. But this show likes to catch its audience off their guard. There are breaks into dance, humour, and the breaking of the fourth wall: the whole thing becomes, at times, entirely surreal. These breaks come when the audience least expects it: the stage is in control and “then it goes a bit crazy,” says Leo Béar. The children are unleashed in their unrestrained craziness and their chaotic fantasies fill the stage – before the controlled reality returns. Under the everyday realism of the spelling bee lies the pandemonium.

There’s much in this play that catches you by surprise, but what you can expect is musical skill. These children are multi-talented: not only can they spell long words like streptococcus, halitosis and flagellate, but they can sing together and apart with incredible accuracy and a real sense of character. The songs are a part you cannot miss. This is a musical for those who love the catchy, the unexpected, or want a chance to take part in the Putnam Spelling Bee for themselves.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is on at the Cripps Auditorium, Magdalene College, 13-17 February

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