Classy production values, polished musicianship, sensitively attuned direction and one singularly unconventional casting decision deliver a slam-dunk, all-round winner for the first offshore production of William Finn’s multi-Tony-winning Broadway musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” This charming chamber piece spun around an inter-school spelling competish is playing to packed houses in Melbourne, with other Australian tour stops likely to follow.
At the joyous heart of the piece lies the timeless tale of the oddball outcast vying for his or her place in the sun, only to ultimately discover what Carson McCullers defined as “the we of me.” And it’s that infectious communal energy that informs and resonantly frames each cast member’s vividly etched performance.
Perhaps the most individual character in the whole combative junior chorus lineup is plump, sniffling, defensively superior foot-speller William Barfee, played on Broadway by Tony winner Dan Fogler.
In the Melbourne Theater Company production, Barfee is played by popular Aussie TV comedienne Magda Szubanski (featured star of phenomenal small-screen hit “Kath and Kim” as well as the “Babe” movies), and she’s sensationally good. Hilariously entering the action rear-end first and then proceeding to cut everyone else with a self-satisfied “Yes, of course” or snitty “I know,” versatile Szubanski brings subtle depths and nuance to a potentially grotesque character. Barfee’s tentative, gradual humanization, especially during some flirtatious overtures to fellow competitor Olive Ostrovsky (a beamingly assured Natalie O’Donnell) is one of the show’s genuine triumphs.
Triumphant, too, is local musical diva Marina Prior’s definitive star turn as one of the three central adult protags, adjudicant and former childhood spelling-bee champ, Ms. Rona Lisa Peretti. Resplendent in lavender-tweed Doris Day suit and spangly high heels, a silver-blonde-tressed Prior sails through the role with knowing, seemingly effortless finesse. A consummate performer, she zaps every choice one-liner, and in her big climactic number (“The I Love You Song”), she positively soars vocally.
David Campbell plays scene-stealing, testosterone-challenged Chip Tolentino with brash bravado, while Tim Wright lends the slightly pixilated role of Leaf Coneybear just the right dash of goofy fervor.
Portraying two very different kinds of young female perfectionista, both Christen O’Leary and Natalie Mendoza match side-splitting humor (and in Mendoza’s case, crazily inspired body language) with heartbreak.
Tyler Coppin’s droll Vice Principal Panch and Bert Labonte’s wry, streetwise Comfort Counsellor round off a superb ensemble expertly guided by director Simon Phillips through a splendid Down Under version of a new Big Apple classic.
Dale Ferguson’s flexible basketball-court-plus-boxed-stage performance arena and Matt Scott’s iridescent lighting design, as well as Ian McDonald’s economically eloquent orchestrations, add immeasurably to a masterful mix. This bee will buzz merrily for some time to come.