Hayes Theatre, September 13


It starts with such artless charm, and yet by the end is dragging its ergative verbs and uncountable nouns to the point where two hours seems interminable. Most of the fault lies with William Finn’s music, which not only fails to generate memorable songs, but as Act Two trundles along, starts to pile up dire truly ones, bullying the singers into shrillness – not helped by the sound being too loud.

If all that begs the question of why the new September Remedy Productions would choose this 2005 musical as its launchpad, the answer is twofold. Firstly, the show is salvaged by Finn’s lyrics and Rachel Sheinkin’s book, which bulge with such funny lines and likeable characters that it’s a shame the music constricts the show’s laugh muscles so much. Secondly, director Dash Kruck has splendidly cast the production, so the characters fizz and pop as the jokes come zinging at you, and you even forgive the songs – for a while.

Rebecca Ordiz. Photos: Phil Erbacher.

Six school kids (played by adults) compete in a spelling bee, joined by three nervous audience members, who are gradually eliminated, as then are the children, until two are left to fight over the trophy. The show has the inherent problem of being at its most entertaining at the start, when everyone’s on stage. As the contestants are whittled down, so the concept thins, and the songs’ tedium can no longer be camouflaged.

James Haxby stands out as Vice Principal Panch, the quizmaster who gives the impression he’d rather be de-stinging wasps than extracting obscure South American rodents (capybara, anyone?) from a spelling bee. Haxby’s performance is so dry it crackles, and his sidekick is the ever-reliable Katrina Retallick as the saint-like teacher, Rona, while Nathaniel Laga’aia makes an auspicious professional debut as Mitch, the community-service-serving ex-con.

Among the kids, the female characters are more convincingly drawn than the males. Rebecca Ordiz, Adeline Hunter and Jessica Kok all have a ball excavating their inner school girls, with Ordiz having marvellous rag-doll mannerisms as Olive, Hunter cutely deploying wide eyes and a mouth full of lisps as Logainne, and Kok being the self-satisfied, know-it-all Marcy. Axel Duffy, Matthew Predney and Daniel Raso complete the cast, the latter in the central role of the health-compromised William Barfee, played with a voice unnervingly like Trump’s.

Until October 8.