Asked to use the word “lachrymose” in a sentence, Steve Pemberton’s questionmaster in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” drolly announces “Staging a musical comedy was a departure from the theater’s usual lachrymose fare.” He’s not wrong. A spangly slash curtain and a climatic glitter-drop have not featured prominently in the Donmar’s design history but Jamie Lloyd’s perky production boasts both. The choice of this berth for the U.K. premiere of the Broadway hit may be unexpected, but it’s seriously smart.
Mirroring Gotham’s Circle in the Square staging, audiences are wrapped around three sides of the space. In a cunning ploy to complete the transformation of the intimate theater into a gymnasium, painted metal schoolchairs replace the auditorium’s traditional seating thereby upping the sense of audiences becoming proud family members who are there to cheer everyone on.
And thanks to ideally pitched performances from Lloyd’s young cast, all but one making their Donmar debut, there is plenty to cheer.
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Although William Finn’s lyrics are more distinctive than his highly efficient music, the company and Alan Williams’s five-piece band seize their opportunities. Hayley Gallivan in particular delivers power vocals as Olive Ostrovsky in the double-edged “The I Love You Song”.
Encouraged to push characterizations towards hi-definition comic exaggeration, the actors never topple over into cartoon caricature. That’s especially true of David Fynn’s bragging big boy William Barfee whose unexpected physical grace comically contradicts his size. Fynn’s seemingly effortless juggling of grand, sneering bullying and delicious attention to detail is both funny and touching.
Realising that the show has dips in tension, Lloyd understandably keeps his foot on the accelerator. That forward momentum keeps everything rolling but there are moments where potential pathos is lost. And while Ann Yee’s choreography is well-sprung with numbers ending with precision, surprise and invention are in short supply.
Timing, however, turns out to be on the show’s side. In the six years since its off-Broadway bow, something has happened in the world of schoolkids and musical comedy and that something is “Glee”. The latter has led to massive mainstream acceptance of singing both private passions and plot. Crucially for this show, it has also allowed audiences to embrace huge tonal switches between sincere and sardonic. “Spelling Bee” has nothing like the pre-existing “Glee” hits to bolster its popularity. Yet its similar vigour, flashes of comic viciousness and good-hearted silliness should ensure U.K. success with all but the terminally po-faced.