The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee Review - Spells A Great Time

This sixth grade Albany County Spelling Bee winner was excited to finally see and review The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace.  Conceived by Rebecca Feldman, with music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Scheinkin and additional material by Jay Reiss, this  hilarious and heartfelt musical not only keep me laughing, but reminds me that we are all winners, even when we lose.

(L to R) Frances Limoncelli, Landree Fleming, Eli Branson, Carolyn Braver, Zack Colonna, Joe Dempsey

The Drury Lane version of the Tony Award-winning musical is Executive Produced by Kyle DeSantis, with Drew Desantis, Jason Van Lente, and Abbie DeSantis listed as Producers.  The Artistic Director is William Osetek, and show is directed by Scott Calcagno (who has also directed other musical productions in the area, including Legally Blonde at the Civic Theatre and Grease at The Long Lake Theatre).

In The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the production takes place in local school gymnasium.  The winner of the competition goes to the National spelling bee in Washington D.C.  “Rona Lee Peretti,” played deftly by Frances Limoncelli, leads us into the world of the local spelling bee as she sets up for this year’s competition.  She is a past winner of the 3rd Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, having spelled “sygyzy” correctly.  She loves every part of the spelling bee, including the beginning when all the competitors are lined up, as well all the drama that occurs during each round.  She is joined by Vice Principal “Douglas Panch,” played by Joe Dempsey, who is the voice of the bee, giving the kids their words and providing funny, if not useful, definitions and sentences to assist the competitors to correct spellings of the words.

Joe Dempsey as Douglas Panch

Each of the competitors has his or her own quirks.  “William Barfee,” played by Eli Branson, has a magic foot to help him spell, but also has mucous membrane issue.  Carolyn Braver as “Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre” doesn’t want to disappoint her two dads.  Last year’s winner, “Chip Tolentino,” played by Jordan DeLeon, has something to prove after his disappointing showing at the national bee.  And then there is Zack Colonna as “Leaf Coneybear,” whose family has told him he’s kind of dumb.  Rounding out the contestants are Landree Fleming as “Olive Ostrovsky,” who is waiting for her own father to come see her and pay for her entry free, along with “Marcy Park,” played by Stephenie Soohyun Park, who is new to the county, was a top 9 finisher at the national competition last year, and must be perfect in all her endeavors.  Jonathan Butler-Duplessis plays non-contestant “Mitch Mahoney,” who is serving out his community service as “comfort counselor” to spellers who leave the competition.

Eli Branson as William Barfee and Landree Fleming as Olive Ostrovsky

The unique part about this show and the cast is that four people are chosen from an audience volunteer list for each production as competitors in the Bee right along with the real cast.  On the night I saw the show, the selected members tried their best to spell the words and often got them right.  Of course, a couple of the words were a little easy, like “cow.”  This was a crowd-pleaser, especially when one of the audience members continued to get his words right until he was given one so impossible, he had to give up and be comforted off the stage by Mitch.

(L to R)(Back Row)-Stephenie Soohyun Park, Jordan DeLeon, Guest (Front Row)-Landree Fleming, Guest, Eli Branson, Guest, Carolyn Braver

As the bee rolls along, we learn about each of the spellers and their backgrounds as they compete in each successive round of words.   The musical numbers are woven into the flow of the show and used to illustrate why the kids are in the bee and what is at stake for them.  All of them have endearing traits brought out by the spot-on casting and I found myself wanting each of them to win.  There could only be one winner at the end and I was satisfied, though I wished to see them in action longer.

I enjoyed all aspects of the production.  The stage was open as we came into the house, with a janitor setting up and cleaning the floors of the “gym.”  I was drawn in right away.  As the show began, I could empathize with the anxiety of each speller, perhaps from my own spelling experience, but mostly from the excellent acting of the cast.  The participants from the audience added a fun angle to the play and this addition can make the show fresh every night.  There is some improvisation during the show, often highlighting current events, which kept me on alert, listening for other tidbits.  The music is lively and keeps the show moving.  The singing is adequate, but this is not a show that requires outstanding musical talent – it’s the characterization that counts.  One musical standout for me was Jonathan Butler-Duplessis at “Mitch.”

Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, Jordan DeLeon

I found no missteps with any of the actors.  Most of the cast has a good deal of Chicago and other theatre credits and I fully expect to see them in other productions across the city in the future.  I especially enjoyed Eli Branson as “William Barfee” and Zack Colonna as “Leaf Coneybear.”

Eli Branson as William Barfee and Cast 2

Zach Colonna as Leaf Coneybear

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is thoroughly entertaining and well-worth the time.   While this is a play about kids in a spelling bee, the humor (and especially one of the songs) is for older teens and adults.  For me, the show was a metaphor for life – we are all winners and have value, even if we don’t come out on top every time.  We can all be hopeful and we all matter.  If I can have a great time and come out feeling hopeful, this production is a s-t-a-n-d-o-u-t.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through August 17 at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL.  Tickets may be purchased online or by calling (630) 530-0111.

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