Theatre at the Center Knows How to Spell Charm
Reviewed by: Melody Udell
Vacuum. That’s the word I misspelled one day in a grade-school spelling bee. And while the memory of this disappointment hasn’t exactly haunted me throughout adulthood, my third-grade self considered it a crushing defeat. I didn’t sew my own clothes like Leaf Coneybear or suffer the indignation of an oft-mispronounced last name like William Barfee (it’s bar-fay, if you please,) but I felt drawn to the quirky, prepubescent word nerds in Theatre at the Center’s production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”
Garnering two Tony Awards after its Broadway debut in 2005, “Spelling Bee” is now a frequently produced regional production. William Finn’s score isn’t chock-full of heavy-hitting musical gems, but it’s zippy and delightful — just like Rachel Sheinkin’s quick-witted book that gets a couple hilariously topical updates at every viewing. But the true heart of the show comes from the six contestants in the ‘bee who each shed a little insight into their relatable childhood troubles while stammering out the correct spelling of “crepuscule.”
Joining Leaf Coneybear (Patrick Tierney) and William Barfee (Jonathan Wagner) in a competition to earn a $200 savings bond are some equally odd contestants — all played by adults. There’s the overachiever Marcy Park (Rose Le Tran), who has trouble convincing others she can cut loose in between practicing Mozart and learning six languages. Then there’s Logainne Schwarzsandgrubeneirre (Landree Fleming), the socially conscious do-gooder with two uptight dads and an obnoxious lisp. Next is sweet and shy Olive Ostrovsky (Nicole Miller), who’s closer to her dictionary than her parents — Dad’s a work-a-holic and Mom fled to an Indian ashram. And lastly, there’s Chip Tolentino (Frank J. Paul), last year’s spelling champ whose coming-of-age issues foil his chances at winning. Chip’s plight becomes one of the musical’s most hilarious songs, although this production, disappointingly, decided to censor it a bit — the word “distraction” was subbed in for the much funnier term “erection.”
As the judges — former ‘bee winner-turned-local realtor Rona Lisa Peretti (Cory Goodrich) and slightly unstable school vice president Doug Panch (Jake Mahler) — provide the words (and their inane descriptions), the young contests are slowly whittled down. Mitch Mahoney (Bear Bellinger), the “comfort counselor” who’s really just an ex-con fulfilling a little community service, ushers each losing contestant offstage with a gruff hug and a juice box. And just like that, we’re taken back to this high-school gymnasium (set design by Inseung Park) where the only thing that matters most won’t matter at all in 20 years. But sitting in this theater, “Spelling Bee” brings us back to the time when our biggest heartbreak was losing in a local spelling competition.
With the help of Nicole Miller’s goofy choreography and some over-the-top energetic numbers like “Pandemonium,” the show is, in a word, charming. And for those of you who preferred soccer fields to spelling bees, there’s still a lot to love about this motley group of misfit spellers.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs through Sunday, August 18 at Theatre at the Center (1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, IN) on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $38-$42 and are available online or by phone at 219-836-3255. For calendar information, please visit www.TheatreInChicago.com