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Putnam County Spelling Bee

Putnam casts a spell

Putnam County Spelling Bee

By Diana Simmonds

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Sydney Theatre, June 14-July 21; ph: 9250 1777 or

In 1975, A Chorus Line opened in New York, moved to Broadway and ran for 15 years. The curtain went up on a revival in October last year and is currently booking through to July. Telling the story of a mob of hopeful hoofers auditioning for a show, it's essentially about hopeful losers and how losers can be winners in the end. It is also about how, no matter how much energy is expended telling you, "It's okay if you don't win, we love you anyway," the truth is, everyone adores a winner.

Two years ago another show on this theme opened in New York and is also now booking through the summer, with a touring company on the road across the USA. An Australian version, out of Melbourne Theatre Company under Simon Phillips' direction, has now opened in Sydney. It's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and, rather than sporting a line of brilliant dancers of whom only a few will be chosen, this show is about spelling competitions for schoolkids.

While the underlying ethos remains the same, there is a world of psychological difference between the funky Broadway glamour of the dancers and the down-home hayseed quality of the spelling whizzes. Although the message is still - losers can be winners, be happy and be loved - another element makes this a post 9/11, post-Abu Ghraib salve to wounded self image. The subliminal message seems to be: even though the eventual winner is an odious, mean-spirited, fat, bullying creep of a boy, in the end he will be fancied by the cutest girl and rendered suddenly loveable when he wins. It's like The Ugly American set to music ... now there's an idea.

Quite what Australians are supposed to make of this beautifully produced and performed piece of small-town Americana is anyone's guess and quite fascinating to ponder. Much the same could have been said of last year's MTC/STC musical theatre collaboration, Urinetown, although Putnam has a lot more going for it in the charm and whimsy stakes. Then digress for a minute and wonder why audiences didn't fall in love with the STC's glorious Summer Rain. There's no accounting for it - or we would all be Hal Prince.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling BeeMeanwhile, Putnam features knockout ensemble performances from Marina Pryor, Lisa McCune, Magda Szubanski, Tyler Coppin, Bert Labonte, Josie Lane, Jamie McGregor, Christen O'Leary and Tim Wright. Each is a star turn in his or her own right as the Bee progresses and the 12-year-old word nerds battle it out. The most operose, exanimate and gelastic words ever heard by normal folk are trotted out during a fun audience participation sequence and the rest is as predictable and charming as the adventures of Huck Finn.

The music and lyrics by William Finn arise from the action and are appealing if not the showstopper variety; the book, by Rachel Sheinkin, won the 2005 Tony. Choreographer Ross Coleman does his best with a mob of non-dancers (A Chorus Line this definitely is not) and the industrious Dale Ferguson (see below) succeeds in turning the determinedly proscenium Sydney Theatre into a credible small-town school basketball hall.

Putnam is a fun night out to an event and a place as alien and comical to us as a Galaxy Quest convention. Don't expect to come out humming memorable tunes, but do expect a warm and fuzzy feeling where your cynical bone usually resides.

You can hear an interview with Magda Szubanski regarding this show on episode 31 of Stagecast.

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