Friday, August 14, 2009

My review for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee...

... kena censor by Straits Times in today's Life!. Sigh.

Don't really want fight, since I'm just doing it for the money. But the bit that got cut is the focal point of my review (and pretty damn scandalous, so I guess ST didn't want to cause a conservative uproar), so I reproduce it here, excised material in bold.

> theatre
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Atlantis Productions, Inc.
Victoria Theatre

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is full of surprises. Sure, you might have expected this Tony Award-winner to be a song and dance extravaganza that inspires children to excel academically. Instead, it turns out to be a wonderfully mischievous drama, charming audiences young and old with its vivid characters.

The show takes a while to warm up. There is an energy missing from the first few scenes, as the cast sings too softly, moving without the exuberance one would expect of an opening. Even a song like “Pandemonium”, in which the contestants leap off their chairs in frustration, comes across as a little too tame.

However, as the players gain momentum, we warm to their roles. Johann Dela Fuente plays the endearing Leaf Coneybear, a child of hippies who feels out of place among all the geniuses, as he relates in his song “I’m Not That Smart”.

Another memorable figure is Nancy Park, an overachieving Korean-American girl played by Shiela Valderrama Martinez. After her solo, “I Speak Six Languages”, she dramatically forces herself to fail, encouraged by a kindly apparition of Jesus.

Extra spice is added through audience participation. Four “guest spellers” are invited on stage at every show, pretending to be students, and made to spell ridiculously obscure or ridiculously simple words – my night, guests got terms as varied as “pilgarlick” and “dog”.

Remarkably, these hapless guests are soon persuaded to join in some of the basic choreography, while the MC improvises commentary on their appearances, noting, for instance, how they were the first in their grade to grow facial hair.

The biggest surprise, however, is the level of adult humour in the show. This ranges from intellectual references to Nietzsche to shocking flashes of sequined panties under checkered skirts.

One character faces pressure from her gay fathers (their relationship is fairly dysfunctional, which is probably why the censors okayed it). Another character, played excellently by Felix Rivera, has a lament about the circumstances which caused him to misspell his word, entitled “My Unfortunate Erection”. Pretty funny stuff – and fortunately, it goes right over the heads of younger children.

Spelling Bee is not your typical big-budget musical, nor, in my opinion, is it brilliantly executed by this cast. Still, the power of the script and its lovable band of quirky characters shines through. Audiences can still expect a satisfying, rib-tickling evening at the theatre. Thankfully, no surprises there.

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