Students, adults well-defined at ‘25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’
By HEDY WEISS Theater Critic June 29, 2014 10:01PM
William Barfee (Eli Branson) visualizes words by writing them with his foot in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” | BRETT BEINER
‘THE 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’
When: Through Aug. 17
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Ln., Oakbrook Terrace
Tickets : $40-$50
Info: (630) 530-0111;
Run time: 2 hours and 15
minutes with no intermission
Updated: June 29, 2014 10:02PM
‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” now in director Scott Calcagno’s deliciously grand-scale revival at Oakbrook’s Drury Lane Theatre, may just be one of the quirkiest of hit Broadway musicals — in a tie, perhaps, with “Avenue Q,” the show with which it shares the traits of sophisticated whimsy, faux naivete and a cast of characters caught up in the full range of contemporary neuroses and comically heartbreaking situations.
Both shows also are a bit deceptive. Though playful, neither is exactly “family fare,” unless someone is prepared to do a fair amount of explaining about sex.
As for the major difference between the two: “Putnam County” homes in on “kids,” although those kids are played by very gifted adult performers who clearly have channeled their “inner child.” In “Avenue Q,” the characters (and their puppet alter-egos) are unquestionably adults, though they suffer from various forms of arrested development that often make them appear adolescent.
The one crucial requirement for both shows is performers of immense charm, agility, smarts and deft improvisational instincts. This production is a sure winner on that front; Calcagno has chosen his actors ideally.
With a score by William Finn, and a supremely witty, language-obsessed, 2005 Tony Award-winning book by Rachel Sheinkin, “Putnam County” (conceived by Rebecca Feldman) leaves certain things to chance (each night, four audience members are selected to join the onstage team, and those at Thursday’s opening were so good they should be given Equity cards). It also leaves room for canny updates, including, in this edition, one regarding gay marriage.
The “adults” in the room, who are overseeing the bee that will send one winner to the nationals, are Rona Lisa Peretti (the power-voiced Frances Limoncelli), a real estate broker whose greatest moment in life may have been when she came in first place in the contest years earlier. Her “associate” (and slightly deranged suitor) is Douglas Panch (the ideally manic, fast-thinking Joe Dempsey), vice principal at a local junior high school.
The contestants, each more troubled and endearing than the next, and all played by supremely talented actors: William Barfee (Eli Branson), the reigning champ, a hypochondriac who spells out the words with elaborate footwork; Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Carolyn Braver), the preternaturally political daughter of two gay men; Marcy Park (Stephenie Soohyun Park), the overachieving Asian student who wishes she were not the best at everything; Chip Tolentino (Jordan DeLeon), whose hormones have become a serious distraction; Leaf Coneybear (Zack Colonna), the sweet, fanciful, home-schooled kid who never thought he’d be in a bee, and Olive Ostrovski (Landree Fleming, a lovely actress with a soaring voice), who is waiting for her dad to show up, and whose mother is off in an ashram in India.
Further evidence of the show’s satirical bite is Mitch Mahoney (a winning Jonathan Butler-Duplessis), the young guy on parole whose “community service” assignment is to be the warmhearted “bouncer” for each loser. He offers a hug and a juicebox, and the wisdom that comes from the school of hard knocks. He is the most well-adjusted person in the room.