A talented cast makes this pacy off-Broadway musical a delight!
Having only had a short London run at the Donmar Warehouse, I was not familiar with this small-scale musical with a big title. The premise is that six wacky, oddball school kids take part in an annual spelling contest and more than that you don’t really need to know. Being performed here by a savvy and highly talented small cast makes for as enjoyable an evening at the theatre as you’re likely to find. Despite its sober schoolroom setting, Spelling Bee lifted my heart unexpectedly and over-delivers on its promise. That’s even counting some hefty competition recently from Media Lane’s excellent Sweeney Todd at the Delamar and the lacklustre, scaled back AIDA in Scheveningen from Disney/Stage Entertainment.
Cauldron Performing Arts is ostensibly an amateur English language company, producing musicals. But with a core of professionally trained and dedicated, largely American actors in this outing, you’d barely believe it. This production is teeming with talent and never loses pace, focus or its ability to make you laugh. The six kids, all played by adults, are pretty much never off stage but also never drop out of character. The tiny details of facial expressions and body language mean that their personalities are still being reinforced even when the spotlight is somewhere else; and how hysterically funny that is.
There are too many standout performances to mention them all here, but unendingly adorable is sweet but hyper-intense Leaf Coneybear, played heart-warmingly by Blace Newkirk. Unable to sit still for even a second, he delivers a big portion of the laughs as well as being vocally gifted. The audience is genuinely sad when he spells a word wrong and has to leave the stage. Fortunately they get an extra treat; Newkirk is soon back in an equally amusing cameo as none other than Jesus Christ himself!
More subdued but equally impressive is Macy Hohenleiter’s character Marcy Park (one is with an R and the other is without!) Marcy is a Roald Dahl, goody-two-shoes type character who learns that it’s okay to not always win. Her prim and clever-clogs schoolgirl was brilliantly observed and again the perfect physical embodiment of her teenage character. Macy’s London training at Goldsmith’s really shows, with West End quality singing and controlled yet magnetic stage presence
If the show has a message, then this is it. It is not the winning it’s the taking part and being a good person that counts. But happily writers William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin don’t over egg this theme and it’s for the good. It remains subtle, as portrayed by Marcy and several other characters. Spelling Bee avoids the schmaltzy sentiment of Wicked, where it’s fine to be green or indeed whatever you happen to be. And unlike Avenue Q or The Book of Mormon, you don’t feel that the same joke is being reinvented every five minutes just to lampoon American values. A parody of middle America it is, but so peppered with clever wordy jokes in the script and lyrics that I found myself laughing out loud often in the middle of songs. It seems fitting that a musical about words went on to win the Tony Award for best book of a musical and no wonder.
The spellers all have their own techniques for getting it right and Nathan Pollpeter as William Barfee (pronounced Barfay as he keeps reminding us) has a magic foot that spells the word out first. Polpetter somehow plays Barfee as both child and adult, reminding us that this is not really a show for kids. His comic timing and delivery wouldn’t look amiss on the US show Saturday Night Live but he backs this up with great singing and some nifty moves in those two-tone correspondent shoes. In short, he’s hugely entertaining and a likeable nerd. Those moves are in the very capable hands of choreographer Zena Wood, who in what is clearly a close collaboration with director George Hansell, has created simple but effective dance that brings the stage alive. Most importantly, they both know that this is a camp show with it’s tongue firmly in its cheek and they both make sure that the actors keep this style and vibe going throughout the piece.
The two other spellers Olive (Fien Tol) and Chip (Ties Jansen) also deliver impressive numbers with pathos and with crowd-pleasing smut respectively with The I Love You Song and My Unfortunate Erection. The latter’s comic ballad opens Act 2 with a bang (sorry!) and it goes down a treat with the audience.
If I had any reservations they were few and unimportant. If this was the out of town tryout then for the ‘Broadway’ opening I would have wanted some of the more minor characters beefed up. Midge Mahoney would benefit from some more exaggerated, stock character traits and be even funnier. Equally, the gay parents of speller Logainne, are too downbeat and given their limited ‘airtime’ would benefit from a liberal dose of caricature. As it is, the otherwise impeccable Camille Gribbons as Logainne is robbed a little of the comedy opportunities that more outrageous, stereotyped gay parents would have provided.
But sadly there are only 5 more shows planned, between the 19th and 21st May. So do yourself a favour and take a trip to Amsterdam’s off-Broadway in Noord. I can assure you it is well worth the trip and 25 euro ticket price! Nicholas Stanley 15th May 2023