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Quirky characters draw director to 'Spelling Bee'
By Jack Helbig | Daily Herald Correspondent
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Published: 9/24/2010 12:01 AM

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Ask director Robin Hughes what she looks for in a show she would like to direct and she will tell you she is drawn to productions with interesting characters. Take "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," for example.

She is directing a production of this hit 2005 musical, currently in previews at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights. The show - with music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin - follows a handful of quirky, brainy kids (all of them played by adults) as they cope with a spelling bee.

"They are all middle-school-aged students," Hughes says. "The show catches them at their coming-of-age moment."

The characters were why Hughes, who has been the artistic director at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre for the past two years, decided to add the show to the theater's season. And why she then decided she wanted to direct it.

"I like doing musicals," Hughes says. "I have always believed that musicals were more than fluffy fun. Musicals put a lot of what we face every day in a palatable form."

In "Spelling Bee," the students are forced to confront issues of identity, self-esteem and whether winning is everything.

Originally from Minnesota, Hughes, who now lives in Grayslake, came to Chicago by way of Illinois State University and a fellowship at Steppenwolf. Once she sampled the Chicago theater scene, she realized she had to stay.

Hughes first came to the Metropolis in 2001 as an actor, playing Mrs. Cratchit in the theater's first production of "A Christmas Carol." Later she was asked to help with casting and directing.

"I have directed," Hughes says, "among other shows, 'Lend me a Tenor,' 'Steel Magnolias,' and three years of 'A Christmas Carol.'"

And now, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."

"I thought it would be a lot of fun to direct," Hughes says, adding that it has been a true collaboration with the actors.

But that is par for the course for Hughes, who couldn't be happier working with the cast of characters she knows at Metropolis.

• "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is currently in previews. It opens Sunday, Sept. 26, and runs through Nov. 6 at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell, Arlington Heights. For tickets call (847) 577-2121 or visit,