The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

by Robert Bullen

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday June 21, 2009

Michael Mahler in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
Michael Mahler in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.  

Who hasn't felt like an outsider or misfit in their formative years (or even last week)? And in the Marriott Theatre's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, we are reminded that growing up is a painful, embarrassing, and surprisingly hilarious, right of passage.

Spelling Bee is a scrappy musical comedy by William Finn (music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book) that explores the rollercoaster of emotions brought on by adolescence and competition, as told through the eyes of at six highly unique spelling bee contestants.

After all, we all know how dramatic and unintentionally hilarious spelling bees can be.

While Spelling Bee could, at first glance, seem a bit too cloying and twee for some, what with adult actors playing kids and singing songs about acceptance and erections, the show unexpectedly reaches in and grabs your heart from the onset and doesn't let go. And under Rachel Rockwell's direction, the show is silly and fun while remaining completely sincere.

This is my third production of Spelling Bee, having previously seen the original Broadway cast and the original Chicago cast at Drury Lane Water Tower. Every time I see this show, I like it more, and Marriott's production ranks among the top.

Credit must be given to one of the best Chicago ensemble casts I've seen in recent memory. Each actor gets a chance to shine, and shine they do. Nearly every cast member has done other productions of Spelling Bee before, allowing them time to develop fully realized characterizations. And when the ding of the bell indicates yet another elimination, you truly feel sad to see them go.

Credit must be given to one of the best Chicago ensemble casts I've seen in recent memory.

Standouts in a cast of all-stars include Eric Roediger as the hilariously pretentious William Barfee, who spells his words with assistance from his magic foot, and the warm and touching Heidi Kettenring as the pensive Olive Ostrovsky, whose mother is in an Ashram in India and her absent father is eternally late to the bee. In addition, the golden-voiced Roberta Duchak strikes a perfect balance of smug and sensitive as bee moderator Rona Lisa Peretti.

However, the true star of the show is William Finn's playful music and lyrics, which showcase his signature contemporary and idiosyncratic insight. He explores the insecurities and desires of each contestant in deceptively simple melodies fitted with lyrics that shift from hilarious to silly to crude to melancholy. And just when you least expect it, the tender The I Love You Song, comes along, where Olive longs for affection from her absent mother and father. Warning: Tears may happen.

Sheinkin's pitch-perfect book is ripe with one-liners and opportunities for the talented cast to integrate current events. The night I saw it, Brandy McClendon (playing the lispingly outspoken bee contestant, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre) went off about Chastity Bono's transition into Chaz. And there's audience interaction, too, with four good-humored people brought up onstage to spell and basically be publicly humiliated by the amusing bee moderators. (One middle-aged "guest speller" was introduced with "Mr. Joe Smith recently completed puberty in a single day!")

While bladder-challenged theatergoers may disagree with me, I found the insertion of an intermission unnecessary (the original productions were intermissionless). What results are two unbalanced acts: act one is full of comedy and audience participation without a dramatic arc, leaving act two to deliver the emotional impact.

Marriott's in-the-round staging is an advantage for a show like Spelling Bee. With the audience staring down at the anxious bee contestants from all sides, it enhances the idea that they are on display, fighting to prove themselves.

The night I attended, the audience was incredibly diverse, with a wide range of children and adults. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves immensely. Keep in mind, however, while this show is about kids, the themes and content are mature at times. (In fact, on Broadway, they would hold the occasional Adults Only version of Spelling Bee.) While most of it might go over a youngster's head, songs like My Unfortunate Erection certainly won't. Use your best judgment.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through July 19, 2009 at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. For tickets, call the Marriott Theatre Box Office at 847.634.0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com for more information

A native midwesterner, Robert is a self-confessed Chicago theatre addict. You can read more about his addiction at chitheatreaddict.com