★★★★★ A vibrant production with a heart of gold, striking the perfect balance of smart and silly.

The Lawler, Southbank Theatre, Melbourne
April 5, 2016

Gelastic (: a quality provoking fits of highly physical laughter), sacchariferous (: emotionally touching and sweet) and coruscate (: shining, brilliantly), The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a gem of a musical comedy, examining the cutthroat competitiveness and social trauma simmering beneath the veneer of wholesome collegiality at a small, regional spelling contest.

It’s a show chock full of laughs, both puerile and highbrow, but funny doesn’t have to be flippant, as Vic Theatre Company’s production of this 2005 Broadway hit makes abundantly clear. It’s a work of subtly expert craftsmanship, thanks to the wit of composer-lyricist William Finn’s toe-tapping songs and Rachel Sheinkin’s book. Perfectly observed and utterly lovable characters, a powerfully uplifting message about chasing happiness over success and having the freedom to be who we choose to be, and a nicely judged element of audience participation, plug this show into an unapologetic, high-voltage joy, that’s hardwired straight to the heart.

Caitlin Mathieson as Olive Ostrovsky

When it opened eleven years ago in New York, this unassuming, quietly brilliant musical proved to be the little show that could, raking in nine major American theatre awards, including two Tonys, in its premiere season. Since then it has proven to be an attractive piece for both professional companies and amateurs alike, thanks to its relatively approachable score and its generous ability to scale-up or pare-down with little discernible impact on its communication with an audience. But with such a character driven ensemble piece, weak links stand out, so it’s a credit to Vic Theatre Company that this solidly cast production is unanimously flawless.

While each character gets their own moment to reveal their personal demons – whether that be Marcy Park’s (Teresa Duddy) over achiever’s anxiety, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere’s (Sage Douglas) parental pressure-cooker or Chip Tolentino’s (James Coley) raging hormones – the nucleus of this show is the misfit romance between abandoned loner Olive Ostrovsky (Caitlin Matheison) and hyper-awkward super nerd, William Barfee (Andrew Hondromatidis).

Henry Brett as Leaf Coneybear

Each is socially isolated by their personality quirks and love of learning, but while individually they were almost offputtingly odd, together their adorable connection was impossible to resist. Mathieson in particular brings a deeply compelling current of emotional vulnerability to her portrayal, gently tugging on the heartstrings without overindulging in this pathos.

As the two “adults” of the show, Rebecca Moore as former queen ‘Bee Rona Lisa Perretti, and David Spencer as the marginally unstable Vice Principal Douglas Panch, provided the overly cheerful yet coldly officious undertow that corralled the pace of the show (and it’s four audience cameos). Yet, they also provided a valuable moment of poignancy as Olive’s estranged parents, delivering the most musically accomplished performance of the evening.

Rebecca Moore as Rona Lisa Perretti and David Spencer as Vice Principal Douglas Panch

But for me, the night’s most magnetic account came from the home-schooled yokel, Leaf Coneybear, realised with forensic perfection by Henry Brett. Comic timing that always hit the bullseye without fail, paired with a strong voice and spot-on characterisation, made Brett’s delivery of this cute (albeit occasionally possessed) idiot worth the ticket price alone.

This staging, designed by William Bobbie Stewart and lit by Jason Bouvaird, is simple but vibrant, using a cartoonish palette of bright colours and lurid lighting to amplify the glaring caricature quality of the action. As one of Broadway’s most licensable properties of the past decade, many different takes on this show have been attempted, but director Ben Giraud’s manages to find an identity of its own. Slick, insightful and deeply sincere, the pace and energy of this performance shows a great deal of intelligence, while remaining confident enough to not shy away from some of the cheaper gags; the perfect balance of smart and silly.

Vic Theatre Company present The 25th Annual Putname County Spelling Bee, at the Southbank Theatre, part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival, until April 10.