Friday, June 16, 2006

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (The SOB Review) - Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place, Chicago, IL


The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (The SOB Review) - Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place, Chicago, IL

**** (out of ****)

How do you spell success? In the case of the new sit-down production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee that opened earlier this spring in Chicago, you'd be easily forgiven for spelling it N-O-N-S-T-O-P L-A-U-G-H-T-E-R. This excellent musical gem, complete with superb ensemble, absolutely charms and delights with a little tale of one of those uniquely American displays of educational prowess: the lowly spelling bee.

While we're introduced to each the types of children you'd expect to see at a bee -- all brilliantly played with dizzying aplomb by some amazingly talented young adults -- director James Lapine finds surprising depth and heart in each of them. With an exquisitely written book by Rachel Sheinkin (she won a Tony Award last year for her effort) and blissfully funny score by William Finn, the audience is treated to an unexpectedly strong set of back stories that set up how each of the kids to made it to the competition.

But there's nothing quite like the contest itself, which is moved along by the adults played by James Earl Jones II, Bill Larkin and Lucia Spina and includes requisite audience participation. Yet, ultimately this is struggle among the kids, fabulously portrayed by Eric Roediger, Cristen Paige, Jen Sese, Derrick Trumbly, Brad Weinstock and Christine Werny. The members of this highly-charged ensemble expertly capture the essence of their characters. The result is a fresh, exuberant musical that moves by almost as fast as a spelling bee lightning round.

Just as Broadway has mined the Chicago cast of Wicked for the Great White Way's Gershwin Theatre production, don't be surprised to see any of the actors from Chicago's Drury Lane Theater Water Tower transfer directly to the Circle in the Square Theatre (ironically, right downstairs from the Gershwin), where the Broadway mounting of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is being spelled out eight times each week. They're truly that W-O-N-D-E-R-F-U-L.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets for the Chicago production.
Click here for tickets for the Broadway production.

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