The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Skokie Theater

Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Directed by Wayne Mell
Skokie Theater
Madcap Productions
BEE Buzzes into Skokie, Spells Success
The lobby is not as grand, the seats are not as plush, the theater is not
as glamorous, but the production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County
Spelling Bee” at the intimate Skokie Theatre is just as delightful as the
production of the same play I reviewed in 2006 at the Drury Lane Theatre
in Water Tower Place.
Once again, we meet the rag-tag clutch of middle-schoolers at a seminal
moment in their lives as they struggle to gain fame, glory, a trophy and a
$200 scholarship. Once again, the professional cast is peppered by four
members of the audience who are drafted to join the actors — and show a
willingness and verve that suggests that they may have missed their true
calling.
This is an evening of sheer delight as the play interweaves moments of
traumatic struggle with the chosen words (consider crepuscule and
bianthropy) and flashbacks to the backgrounds of the contestants.
The youngest participant, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Heidi
Hansfield, a Pippi Longtocking look-a-like complete with the stand-away
braids), is the stressed daughter of two ambitious, perfectionist fathers
(Schwartz and Grubenierre, of course). In contrast, homeschooled Leaf
Coneybear (played as a diffident, winsome country lad by Ben Isabel) has
always been put down and considered stupid by his family. Neglected Olive
Ostrovsky (skillfully developed by Jillian Mayer to blossom before our
eyes) appears abandoned. Mom is in an Ashram in India for the next nine
months while Dad not only failed to pay the $25 entrance fee but also
fails to arrive.
Each of the youngsters is deliciously and yet endearingly flawed:
perfectionist overachiever Marcy Park (Shana Dagny), athletic,
hormone-driven Chip Tolentino (Mark Yacullo), and very touchy, stressed
out William Barfee (Dustin Rothbart).
To this comic crew, add unhinged vice principal Douglas Panch (Tim Walsh),
a former spelling champion, now hosting the show, Rona Lisa Perretti
(Sarah Saperstein)), and  Mitch Mahoney (Shane Roberie), a  parolee
working on community service by comforting the losers with hugs and  juice
boxes. Nearly all the cast members easily assume dual roles, morphing into
parents, siblings, and even — at a startling moment — Jesus. The whole
cast is splendid.
Moreover, as if this isn’t enough, there are the varied songs filled with
delightful lyrics and clever choreography. Two that brought down the house
were Marcy singing and dancing to “I Speak Six Languages” and Barfee
illustrating the skill of his “Magic Foot” which enables him to spell out
each word on the floor before giving an answer.  Kudos to conductor Ken
Preuss and his fine musicians on piano, cello, reeds and drums.
This Tony Award Winning musical is as fresh, pertinent, charming, and
hilarious as the day it was written. Not only is there the universality of
children and spelling bees but updated material is cleverly ripped from
current headlines.
While Chicago has seen this family-friendly show innumerable times — it
can’t be too many. If you haven’t seen it, don’t miss this production. And
if you have seen it before, return and enjoy it anew.
Highly Recommended.
Beverly Friend, PHD, Member of American Theater Critics Assn.
NOTE: A special Kudo to director Wayne Mell, a founding member of Madcap
Productions for reviving this former neighborhood movie house with a
variety of plays, concerts and presentations. “The Drowsy Chaperone” will
open Sept 8 – Oct 7, and at 1:30 on the first Wednesday of every month,
musical historian Charles Troy presents delightful insights. On July 5, he
will discuss the Creation of “Guys and Dolls.”
Skokie Theatre, 7924 Lincoln Ave in downtown Skokie,
www.skokietheatre.org. 847-677-7761. Tickets $39 (seniors $34, students
$29). 7:30 pm Friday and Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, 1:30 pm Wednesday, June 23
through July 9. Open Seating.
 

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