Wesley College Melbourne Australia
Wesley College Melbourne

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Music and lyrics by William Finn.

Book by Rachel Feinkin.

How do you get unknowable words like “syzygy”, “quaimaqam” and “pakapoo” on to the stage in a way that won’t drive an audience crazy – or out the door? Quite easily, if it is this thoroughly entertaining musical play about six quirky near-adolescents competing in a spelling championship in a geographically obscure location (Putnam County is “anywhere”) overseen by equally quirky adults. “Quirky” is the easy-to-spell word that perhaps best describes this unique theatrical experience. 

The play’s focus lies not just in the tension about who will hold on to win the much sought-after acclaim of being able to spell hilariously unusable words, but often, and more poignantly, in the anxieties and hopes of the young contestants, as well as in the brittle egos of their adult supervisors. Like any good play, this is character-driven, and we are subtly taken inside the frailties and strengths of all the characters we encounter, in flashback and in real time. You will become well-acquainted with, among others, Olive Ostrovsky, Leaf Coneybear and the impossible-to-pronounce Logaine Schwartzandgrubeniere (her gay dads each got their penny’s worth). You get the idea. We are in exotic territory.

Trigger alert. Don your Spelling Bee caps. Because there is some diverting audience participation too. And remember, the best spellers don’t necessarily win since, as the contestants insist at one point, “Life is random and unfair / Life is pandemonium”. The play’s audience, it turns out, is set up for a thoroughly entertaining explanation of just why this is so.

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