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Putnam fuses music, comedy, spelling bees

Michelle Fordice | Sunday, December 3, 2006

The Chicago production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a hilarious show that loves its audience. Irresistible characters, a strong message and a wonderful way of involving viewers drive the show to its heights.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” deserves its Tony for best book. It tells the story of six middle-school students struggling through puberty, overseen by adults who don’t appear to have made completely it through the process either, as they compete in the county spelling bee. “Putnam County Spelling Bee” is fueled by its characters. From Mitch Mahoney, the official “comfort counselor” serving his parole handing out juice boxes to eliminated contestants, to William Barfeé, the contestant with one working nostril, a severe peanut allergy and a magic foot, to vice principal Douglas Panch, whose recovery from the 20th annual bee “incident” is a little uncertain, every character works his or her way into your heart.

“Putnam County Spelling Bee” isn’t afraid to interact with its audience. Before the show, audience members are interviewed and four are selected to actually perform as spellers in the show. The rest of the audience is then treated not as a theatre audience, but as the audience of the spelling bee. In the beginning, the host walks through the crowd welcoming the audience to the bee, certain members are pointed out as character’s “family,” and the first character to be eliminated is then exiled to work for booster club selling candy. The character rebels by throwing candy and chips out at the audience. The interactive element of “Putnam County Spelling Bee” keeps the audience involved and makes every show different.

Though at first glance “Putnam County Spelling Bee” seems to be solely a comedy, the musical has real depth. The central theme can be summed up in the lyric “the best spellers don’t necessarily win.” “Putnam County Spelling Bee” stresses the reasons the spellers are there and why they want (or don’t want) to win. Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the adopted daughter of a gay couple, continually fights to illustrate their ability to raise a child. Olive Ostrovsky tries to battle on despite the absence of both her parents. “Putnam County Spelling Bee,” unlike most musicals, also keeps itself up to date, thanks to the cast’s ad-libbed comments about current events.

The music of “Putnam County Spelling Bee” is very plot-driven, but appealing and appropriate. While it is unlikely the musical’s songs will become standards or attain success on their own – there are not many full solos – they are fun to listen to and express the feelings of the characters very well. The songs are simple, reflecting the young age of the singers, but they narrate what the characters are thinking and pack in a lot of comedy.

The Chicago cast did a wonderful job. The children are all played by adults who act so well it’s hard to imagine they aren’t in elementary school. Many of the actors also play multiple roles, switching from one to the other with ease.

“Putnam County Spelling Bee” evokes laughter throughout the entire performance, all while delivering a strong message and vivid characters. A trip to Chicago is well worth getting a ticket to an I-R-R-E-S-I-S-T-I-B-L-E musical.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is being performed in an open run at the Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower. Ticket information can be found at broadwayinchicago.com.