The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Roberta Duchak is hilariously, blithely bitchy; and apparently a fine improviser when it comes to working with audience members, some of whom are called to test their spelling talents against six "youngsters" on stage. Those six (played by grown-up professionals) battle a plague of youthful humiliations, with the national finals almost within their grasp. Ms. Duchak and Michael Weber are the emcees, and he shows fantastic vocal color, bringing the part of a tormented assistant principal vividly to life.
Eric Roediger is the chubby, surprisingly graceful kid (and also a bit of a car wreck) who spells out each arcane word with a pointy-toed saddle shoe, making his contributions with an elegant series of little dances; Heidi Kettenring is the subtly heartbreaking girl hoping for the appearance of an absentee parent; and Katie Boren is the precocious Asian over-achiever, forced into a mystical encounter at a critical moment. All three, along with their fellow spellers, are plunged into terrible conundrums by the ordeal, which are expressed in fun character songs by William Finn, and through a clever book by Rachel Sheinkin. This production, 30 miles north of downtown Chicago, is lovingly directed and choreographed by Rachel Rockwell, with fine technical support from the Marriott Theatre staff.
Each of the contestants bears up (more or less) under the weight of unbearable expectations: Derrick Trumbly is the "who am I, why am I here?" contestant, taking part with great geeky glee, after two better spellers pulled-out. (He'll later appear as a rationalizing, ambitious stage-daddy.) Brandy McClendon is the antic, overly earnest girl, as wound up as her curly red (and, if you watched the national spelling bee climax in the news recently, you saw a very similar word-visualization technique, used by the winner). And Michael Mahler is terrific as a highly decorated Boy Scout who discovers (like the song says) that life includes a great deal of pandemonium, and is often unfair.
Kevin Smith Kirkwood is dazzlingly different in all three of his on-stage roles, as a hardened ex-convict turned "comfort counselor," a gay dad and an enigmatic, missing father. Great moments of comedy for all include a jarring pledge of allegiance, and a late-in-the-game time warp where events speed up horrifically, and then slow down, just as nightmarishly. A romantic dance, aided by a gold-dappled lighting effect, helps bring events to completion, along with a series of "where are they now" monologs that are surprising, funny, and poignant.
A friend once complained that the problem with a somewhat similar show, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, is that, essentially, it has no story. And, while Spelling Bee falls into the same general category of musical comedy, it also has a strong, sometimes agonizing story to tell, one which drives the evening into rich character growth.
Through July 19, 2009 at the Marriott Resort in Lincolnshire. For information call (847) 634-0200 or visit them on-line at www.MarriottTheatre.com.
* Denotes member, Actor's Equity Association
Musicians are members of the Chicago Federation of Musicians, Local 10-208
Photo by Peter Coombs