Full marks for Saltpillar’s Spelling Bee

The AJN reviews Saltpillar Theatre’s production of the high-stakes musical comedy, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Gabi Bergman stars as Rona Lisa Peretti, a former spelling bee champion who hosts the spelling competition in Saltpillar Theatre’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Photo: Peter Haskin

BEFORE the curtain went up for Saltpillar’s production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Phoenix Theatre, Elwood, there was a sombre announcement from the production team and cast expressing solidarity with Israel in the wake of the recent terror attacks.

In the lead up to the musical’s opening on October 14, there had been discussions about whether the season would be cancelled, but decided to continue as a show of support.

The mood quickly lightened as the witty one-liners and catchy songs took over in this musical comedy set around a high-stakes spelling competition in America in 1991.

Based on a book by Jewish author Rachel Sheinkin and a score by Jewish composer William Finn, it is set around six nerdy teenagers competing in a regional spelling competition for a place at the national titles.

The cast is a young group of music theatre performers from the Jewish community, all showing plenty of acting and singing talent.

The eccentric group of contestants are shy Olive Ostrovsky (played by Eliana Morris); allergy sufferer William Barfee (Itai Franco) who uses his “magic foot” to spell; former champion Chip Tolentino (Jesse Ermer) who also has to contend with the onset of puberty; easily distracted Leaf Coneybear (Jasper Sherman) who only qualified because his school’s winner and runner-up withdrew to attend a bar mitzvah; brilliant Marcy Park (Kiria Clemans) who speaks six languages; and politically aware Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Olivia Harrison) who wants to impress her gay fathers.

As the show progresses, the audience warms to the dysfunctional teenagers.

Running the competition are Rona Lisa Peretti (Gabi Bergman), a former spelling bee champion, and Vice-Principal Douglas Panch (Gregory Frid), who brings wry humour to the officious role of posing the questions.

Mitch Mahoney (Kailey Silver) is the official comforter who escorts the eliminated contestants off the stage – a task that sometimes adds extra drama and tension.

The script has plenty of humour, peppered with one-liners while also showing compassion as the contestants – including four members of the audience who are invited onto the stage for each performance – are progressively eliminated.

Their solo numbers reveal their insecurities and ambitions.

Highlights include the musical number Magic Foot, where Barfee leads the other performers in an energetic dance routine, and the high standard of singing by the cast, with Gabi Bergman and Eliana Morris leading the way.

The four-member orchestra under musical director Matan Franco is an integral part of the production, which is directed by Russell Fletcher.

Saltpillar Theatre’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is at the Phoenix Theatre, Elwood until October 29. Bookings:

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