Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
The Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire
Guest Reviewer Richard Green

Also see John's reviews of Graceland and The Crowd You're In With

While some of us may remember being ordered up to the top of the high diving board as children, others found facing similar crises in the blistering heat of a spotlight, like the six "children" on stage in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. This heartwarming comedy captures all the vertiginous dread you'd find high above a public swimming pool, while blending in healthy doses of humor, pathos and romance, even as each obscure new word is pronounced like a witch's incantation.

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

Roma Lisa Peretti/Mom: Roberta Duchak*
Chip Barrington/Jesus: Michael Mahler*
Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre: Brandy McClendon*
Leaf Coneybear/Carl: Derrick Trumbly*
William Barfee: Eric Roediger*
Marcy Park: Katie Boren*
Olive Ostrovsky: Heidi Kettenring*
Douglas Panch: Michael Weber*
Mitch Mahoney/Dan/Dad: Kevin Smith Kirkwood*

* Denotes member, Actor's Equity Association

Music Director: Doug Peck
Conductor/Keyboard: Patti Garwood
Assistant Conductor/Keyboard: Jeff Bell
Percussion: Joe Ludwig
Reeds: Billy Rogers

Musicians are members of the Chicago Federation of Musicians, Local 10-208

Director and Choreographer: Rachel Rockwell
Set Design: Thomas M. Ryan
Costume Design: Nancy Missimi
Properties Design: Gregory Isaac
Lighting Design: Jesse Klug
Sound Design: Robert E. Gilmartin IV
Production Stage Manager: Michael Hendricks
Production Manager: Adam Ford
Musical Supervisor: Patti Garwood

Photo by Peter Coombs

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-- John Olson

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