Review: 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at QMUL

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I have seen this show too many times. And yet, I was glad to see Queen Mary Theatre Company bring something a little new to this iconic musical about a group of preteens struggling to win their county’s spelling bee and advance to the finals in Washington, DC.

There is a great deal of room for improvisation in this script, and in those places the piece shined. Izzi’s Logan had a lovely few lines as she complained about the height the mic was set at when performing her self-appointed duty of holding it for the director’s little brother, one of the audience volunteer spellers. The added sexual tension between Rona and Panch was also a nice touch, and Logan’s fabulous gay Carl-Dad had some fantastic moments of parent-teacher conflict with the adults running the bee.

Other script changes, unfortunately, fell a bit flat. The decision to split Panch into two characters, and then to make one of them crippled, only served to divide interest in the character and made them rather forgettable at points throughout the show. Playing Jesus as overtly sexual to the point of unintelligibility was just bizarre, and Marcy Parks with large nerdy glasses and a wholly unfeminine self-presentation made her eventual outburst much less exciting and believable.

The singing was sometimes fantastic, sometimes a bit painfully discordant. The American accents, when on, were spot-on, but actors had a tendency to lose them completely at points when distracted–they also had the same issue as in my play, where it is clear when the actors are ad-libbing because the lines become much more British. (And I suspect that no one in the cast or crew actually knows what a Bat Mitzvah is, or they would have corrected the pronunciation on that one.) The lighting was fantastic, colourful and quirky, and for a show where there were so many mics and so many possibilities for sound to go wrong, it was remarkable how well the tech went.

Overall, a fun, enjoyable experience, with good music and mostly strong humour. I am very glad I got to see it.

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