Marina Prior enters the stage from the theatre itself. Blonde bewigged, she struts across the mocked up high school auditorium, adjusts her décolletage, pouts at the audience and starts ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. Already the audience, especially the non-subscription seat holders up the back and on the second tier of the Sydney Theatre, are whooping and whistling with pleasure. We’re in for a happy, easily pleased night. Magda Szubanski’s entrance has much the same effect. She mugs her way onto the stage, her squat bulk only partly concealed beneath a boy’s school uniform. Her character is named William Barfee, ‘pronounced Barfay’ she constantly reminds others, perhaps an echo of WC Field’s Egbert Souse,’with a grave’.
This musical by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin has a lot of bite and much to say about parental and youthful ambition. It has some funny lines and seems to allow Prior and her co-judge Tyler Coppin to improvise more than a bit. It’s staging owes more than a little to old-fashioned panto with much audience participation, including four who are called up to join in the spelling competition and encouraged to act up more than a bit. On the night we saw the show one audience inductee couldn’t spell ‘Jihad’ and was ejected early. One kept spelling words correctly that clearly she was not expected to, causing consternation, cracking up and behind the hand smirking from the professional cast. At least that was the way it was played that night. Maybe it’s like Siegfried and Roy’s show where even the apparently aleatory moments are completely planned.
Prior did her star turn beautifully. It’s been more than a decade since I last saw her as Maria in Ian Judge's great production of West Side Story and she can still bring the audience in and send them home happy. For one moment she and the rest of the cast were outclassed by a kid called Josie Lane who sings ‘I Speak Six Languages”, a song about ambition and expectations. Lane sings it so brilliantly you wonder whether you were present when a star was born. Her bio indicates this may be about the first time she’s ever been paid to perform.
Finally the show has one unusual moment you wont find in Rodgers and Hammerstein. Jamie McGregor sings ‘My Unfortunate Erection’, a matter not normally the subject of a song and dance show. This is the second of Finn’s musicals to be done here, after Falsettos a decade or so ago. They are, as Bruce McAvaney is prone to say, a bit special.