A joyous return to the stage

Director Dr Douglas Wilson reports on the 2022 Musical, performed in conjunction with Ascham, Kambala and SCEGGS Darlinghurst in the Alastair Mackerras Theatre.


Wanting to mark Grammar’s return to the stage with a show that might prove celebratory and uplifting, the choice of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee took us further than we could have hoped, ultimately delivering performances that combined humour and empathy in a manner that was nothing less than joyous.

Faced with the difficult task of creating a group of very quirky young teenagers competing in a rather intense competition, our cast members worked patiently and with remarkable attention to detail, creating characters that were both vivid and memorable. Defending champion Chip Tolentino was made nicely smug by sweet-throwing Felix Power (V), while Charlie Carroll (IV) played the dreamy Leaf Coneybear with a wonderfully unselfconscious childishness. Keeping up the pattern of striking contrasts, an exuberant Payton Green gave us a palpably intense and anxious Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, while Lauren Young made perfectionist Marcy Park totally credible as she gradually shifted all the way from moodily defensive to ecstatically self-liberated. Prickly nerd William Barfee was brought to life with brilliant comic absurdity by Harvey Abrahams (V), and Samantha Millin created a vulnerable but hopeful Olive Ostrovsky with affecting grace and sensitivity. Holding this odd collection of youngsters together was the show’s slightly manic host, Ms Peretti, performed with warmth and vivacity by Lulu Joye, supported by her rather uptight assistant, Vice Principal Douglas Panch, played with amusing awkwardness by Ethan Lowinger (V). Finally, James Brew (IV) somehow managed to stretch himself between the roles of grumpy (and vocally soulful) comfort counsellor Mitch Mahoney and two of the girls’ fathers.

Added to the exuberant acting was the broader collection of talent on display. There were memorable singing performances (Woe Is Me, Prayer of the Comfort Counsellor, Second, The I Love You Song), but the standout element was the strength of the vocal collective – something that was evident from our earliest rehearsals.

And this was a cast that could dance, too: we had the playfulness of I’m Not That Smart and the cheekiness of Magic Foot, the surprising athleticism of I Speak Six Languages and the unexpected beauty of Pasde Deux, and we even had the carefully choreographed chaos of Pandemonium.

Supporting all of this was a chorus of nineteen playing the part of the spellers’ fellow pupils and friends – something that we added to the show’s design – a band of nine very talented boys under the inspiring leadership of musical director Dr Vines, and, hidden in the darkness, a further eleven boys executing the instructions of our brilliant stage manager, Joshua Chan (VI).

It’s interesting to reflect that Spelling Bee begins with Ms Perretti remembering her victory in the same competition twenty-two years earlier, when her careful reciting of the word syzygy (“when the earth aligns with the moon and the stars”) earnt her the trophy.

The aim of all dramatic productions is to have moments when a particular element shines – the acting or the music or the choreography or the visual design – so to have a show where all of those elements are shining at once can feel like a kind of miracle of alignment – a case of theatrical syzygy.

“When everyone involved in a show – the cast and the band and the crew, the teenagers and the adults – brings excellence to what they do, it can feel very much like something special is happening.”

Take a look at the video below to get a sense of this dyanmic and vivacious production