Drury Lane’s “The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee” – All take Home a Trophy
REVIEWED BY: JAMES MURRAY
I am probably one of the minorities who had never heard of or seen The 25th Annual Puntam Spelling Bee. Therefore I went in completely cold. I admit that I avoided it because I am not a fan of William Finn’s music and have been disappointed by many of the discordant modern musicals coming out of New York these days. So when asked to review this production I had to think if I would be a fair critic for it.
I could not have been more pleasantly surprised or hugely entertained by Drury Lane’s top-notch, slick, Broadway quality production of The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee. I now understand what all of the furor over it is about. It is a “concept” show, meaning that it has a gimmick. Although it may look deceptively simple on the surface this is one extremely difficult musical to pull off. And Drury Lane has done just that in spades.
Having competed in many spelling bees myself (and winning) Putnam Spelling Bee brought back memories (I had put out of my mind of what it was really like) and had me on the floor laughing. The word choices and audience participation provide an evening of hilarity that we, as an audience, can easily connect with.
For those who do not know the story it is about an actual Spelling Bee competition and the group of brainy elementary school aged misfits who compete. This story examines America’s obsession with winning and the pressure placed upon kids by their parents and, most importantly, by themselves in competitions. In the America of the entitled generation losing is not an option.
The crucial ingredient for a successful production of Putnam is we must be able to connect the misfit within ourselves to the ones on the stage and remember the bittersweet joy of winning, the pain that comes with losing and the toll that both take on our self-esteem. Deep down It is really about that ugly kid in all of us we keep hidden away from the world. Each character has a “song” that lets us into their minds and gives us a glimpse of the world that shaped them. They all have their own ticks and techniques for spelling which provide many hilarious moments and running jokes throughout the evening. The musical score itself is awkward, whether intended or not by the composer, and the lyrics are the focus. With the exception of the title song there are no others that you leave the theatre remembering.
Much of the credit for this outstanding production goes to the people who cast it; the actors are a flawlessly cast ensemble with top-notch actors and singers. To pull this genre of show off they must have an extraordinary ability to improv (the show was created through improvisation) The characters must have strong, belting voices, razor-sharp comic timing, complete trust and a telepathy with each other as to what is coming next while still being in the moment.
Director Scott Calcagno (at the helm in his first Drury Lane production) deserves major kudos for, what I believe, will be another smash hit for Drury Lane. Everything in Putnam Spelling Bee is strategically thought out with a high level of detail (including an extraordinary set that surprisingly transforms in front of your eyes). The pace never lulls, each character is magnificently and minutely sketched and he has formed an amazing ensemble of performers who make it all look so easy.
Ben Johnson’s Musical Direction and orchestra provide a great sound and do not overpower the singers. Along with Calcagno he sets just the right pace for the evening.
Within the cast is William Barfee, (played with brilliance by Eli Branson in his Drury Lane debut) an asthmatic with peanut allergies and wild curly hair (metaphoric to his characterization) that has a magic foot that spells out the word on the floor as he does with his voice. Barfee (pronounced BAR-FEY) is the defiantly oddest duck in the group and the personal ticks that Branson has created for him require a comic finesse and talent that is only found in the great comediennes like Lucille Ball or Carol Burnett. He possess a natural instinct in just how far to take his character without going over the edge and a deep understanding of what it is to be the outcast. As with all of the great comediennes Branson possesses an underlying sadness which makes the comedic aspects all the richer.
Carolyn Braver’s lisping Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere is another comic masterpiece. Logainne is the product of two daddies and the leader of the LGBT group in her elementary school (boy have we come a long way!). Competition and the desire to win have been programmed into her by one her daddies and for her, losing is not an option. One of the strongest moments is when she has to face failure head on. Braver is very talented.
Jordan Deleon’s erection-prone Chip Tolentino is a master of improvisation with big charm and charisma.
Zack Colonna, who plays Leaf Coneybear, (his tick is that he looks up into the heavens and shouts out the word as he spells it) designs his own clothes and has a fetish for superheroes. Colonna possesses a strong baritone, boyish charm and honesty that draws you in immediately. Like Deleon, he has great skill in connecting and leading an audience.
Jonathan Butler-Duplessis is hilarious as the politically incorrect parole Mitch Mahoney (there is much political incorrectness in Putnam that is honest, refreshing and hilarious).
Landree Flemming’s beautifully sketched Olive Ostrovski provides another main message in the second act with her lovely ballad about being loved and loving her mother (who is away on an ash cleanse in India and can’t be there to support her) has taught her that in spite of whatever she will face in the world she is already a winner. It is a powerful reminder that children do listen and will become what the parents programs into them.
Although there is not a weak link in this flawless cast, the three performances I will remember long after Putnam has closed are Frances Limoncelli’s Rona Lisa Peretti,(a highly successful real-estate broker and spelling bee champion herself, in a tour de force performance), her counterpoint Vice President Douglas Panch played by the brilliant, hilarious and multi-talented Joe Dempsey (rarely have I seen an actor with such amazing, razor sharp, inherent comic timing) and the multi-talented Stephanie Soohyun Park as Marcy Park, the Asian-American who is the fiercest competitor (and Park herself holds a JD so she understands competing).
There is a moment in the second act when she asks Jesus for a harder word (I won’t provide the spoiler of what happens). In the end she provides the main lesson of Putnam; for her losing turns out to be life-changing and liberating. After all winning is all in how we perceive it (America should embrace this concept and not turn out such bad losers). And the cast and crew of Drury Lane’s The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee are all winners. What a rare thing in today’s theatrical offerings
The 25th Annual Puntam Spelling Bee runs through August 17, 2014 at Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL. For more information visit www.drurylaneoakbrook.com. For calendar information visit TheatreInChicago.com