"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is as charming as it is tuneful.
Much of the credit for that rests with director/performer Rebecca Feldman who conceived the show, writer Rachel Sheinkin who created its quirky and altogether credible characters, and composer/lyricist William Finn whose smart, zestful score offers constant delights. Every time I see the "Bee," I like it more.
In less capable hands, this coming-of-age tale about six precocious adolescents vying for a chance to compete in the National Spelling Bee might have emerged as just another hackneyed glimpse into adolescent angst, musical theater's equivalent of "The After School Special."
But while "Spelling Bee" testifies to tolerance, fair-play and self respect, it also offers a keen reminder that life isn't fair, parents aren't perfect, the best and brightest don't always prevail and even a slight misstep can spell disaster. And it does so with a winning combination of unabashed sincerity, gentle satire, sly improvisation and a can't-miss gimmick that has audience volunteers participating as guest spellers during the first act.
A national tour in 2006 brought the Tony Award-winning musical to Chicago where it settled into an extended run at Drury Lane Water Tower Place. Now Marriott Theatre has revived the show in an endlessly engaging production whose winning, appropriately precocious cast includes Chicago-area favorites Heidi Kettenring and Roberta Duchak, alongside veterans of the national tour and the Drury Lane production.
With deft staging and canny casting, director and choreographer Rachel Rockwell deserves much of the praise for Marriott's joyous and genuine production. Add Doug Peck's informed music direction and "Bee" becomes one of summer's must-see shows.
The action unfolds in a middle-school gymnasium where sensitive, overly competitive, overachieving adolescents attempt to spell their way into the Putnam County record books as they grapple with absent parents and unrealistic expectations.
There's returning champion Chip (Michael Mahler), the Boy Scout at the mercy of his hormones; practically perfect parochial school phenom Marcy (Katie Boren) and the sweet-tempered spelling savant Leaf (the affectingly dim Derrick Trumbly, reprising his role from the Drury Lane Chicago production). Joining them is the principled, politically correct Logainne (Brandy McClendon, a supremely talented comedian); lovely, lonely Olive (a wistful, beguiling Kettenring who grounds the show with her warmth) and William (Eric Roediger, another Drury Lane veteran, pairing pretension and self-doubt), the arrogant outsider who spells with his foot.
They compete under the watchful eye of former winner turned realtor Rona Lisa Peretti (Roberta Duchak, also from the Drury Lane cast, whose lush voice counterpoints her characters chirpy demeanor), vice-principal Douglas Panch (a comically deadpan Michael Weber) and Mitch (Kevin Smith Kirkwood), assigned to comfort the disqualified contestants as part of his community service.
Musically, the production is a delight thanks to Peck's seasoned singers - an ensemble whose grand sound contradicts its small number. They manage to sound like children, without ever coming across as contrived, which itself is no small accomplishment.
Ultimately, "Spelling Bee" owes its singular charm to whimsy and insight - a truly winning combination.
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"
Three and a half stars
Location: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire
Showtimes: 1 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 4:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 5 p.m. Sundays through July 19
Running time: About 2 hours, with intermission
Tickets: $45, dinner packages available
Parking: Free parking in lot adjacent to the theater
Box office: (847) 634-0200 or marriotttheatre.com
Rating: For 13 and up