How many musicals have you seen this year? Whatever your answer is, it’s not enough.
Luckily for you, musical-starved reader, MUSE – the Sydney University Musical Theatre Ensemble – has blessed us with two excellent productions this semester: Stephen Sondheim’s Company and William Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Company tracks the life of Bobby, a single and highly popular 35 year old living in New York, whose friendships with married couples move him to look for his better half. The orchestra deserves special praise, a small troupe making New York move to the sounds of clarinet and saxophone.
The cast was excellent, managing effortlessly to convince us they were all married couples steeped in the cynicism of middle age. Occasionally the actors struggled to raise their voices above the orchestra and really command a number. Those who could excelled the most: particularly Melissa McShane in the role of a bride with cold feet and Curtis Gooding as a swaggering and bi-curious yuppie. Praise must also be heaped on Olivia Aleksoski who was almost too convincing as a socialite on her third marriage. It’s loads of fun and completely silly: everything a good musical should be.
It’s slightly harder for me to write a comprehensive review of Spelling Bee given that I didn’t even watch most of it – or not in the traditional sense anyway. About a minute before heading in, I was somehow press-ganged by my companions into signing up to be an audience volunteer. I spent about half the play on stage as a Spelling Bee contestant. My words: “cat” (defined as: cat) and “gossypiboma” (defined as: “surgical complications resulting from foreign materials accidently left inside a patient’s body”). The first I steamed past to deafening applause and general adulation. At the second I came up short, in disgrace and ignominy. Along the way, however, I took part in an impromptu dance number and suffered the eccentricities of my neighbour, a rather weird and shabby home-schooled boy by the name of Leaf Coneybear (played by Daniel Hickie).
It’s a credit to the set designers that upon taking our seats my friend thought I had done what I usually do and messed up, leaving us to spend the next two hours watching an actual spelling bee (“I wasn’t unhappy about it,” he said). From there, it was all-out enjoyment. Spelling Bee was hilarious, down-to-earth and completely fun. The actors nailed their characters and the dialogue. At its weakest, it felt like something Mr G might put on at Summer Heights High with garish, spelling-related musical numbers suddenly appearing out of nowhere. There was one song in particular which was truly awful, but I’m not sure the cast could have done much to salvage it. But the consistent silliness and lack of pretension ended up being a major strength.
While the moping solo numbers in Company could seem a bit ridiculous for failing to really move you, Spelling Bee’s attempts to ramp up the waterworks were Disney-ish and at times faintly ironic. But, it totally worked. Alexander Richmond was particularly good as a control-freak Vice-Principal (but ultimately with a heart of gold – who would’ve guessed?!). The aforementioned Daniel Hickie deserves praise for being able to transition from a fidgety freak into a nonchalant gay father with a vicious competitive streak.
You should see both these shows. It’s only $18 if you have ACCESS and you can bring beer into the theatre and everything. Company may sway those with more traditional tastes, but the colourful absurdity of Spelling Bee stole the show for this reviewer.