Chicago Free Press
April 20, 2006

CFP theater editor

 True to its own clever concept, the Tony Award-winning “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” connects our childhoods through a fluid, interactive, localized and devastatingly funny depiction of 10 kids (three of them audience members) aching for the big time of big words.

Like “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” Rebecca Feldman’s 100-minute anti-nostalgic musical about a literacy pageant will bring back your nerdy youth, screaming and kicking. We meet some deadly familiar adults—the former winner (Lucia Spina), now hosting her seventh spectacle and savoring every minute of prepubescent heartbreak; the “comfort counselor” (James Earl Jones II) doing community service as he escorts the losers offstage with a complimentary juice drink; and the vice principal (our own Bill Larkin), whose deadpan delivery of the non sequitur sentence “examples” is a comedy in itself.

Thanks to Rachel Sheinkin’s show-and-tell dialogue (she achieved a total recovery of kinder crises), the kids run the gauntlet of childhood cluelessness. Logainne Schwartznandgrubeniere (Christine Werny), head of her gay-straight student alliance, has two control-freak gay dads. Though really in love with her dictionary, demure Olive Ostrovsky (Cristen Paige) is pretty enough to throw off the boys’ concentration and religious enough to summon her Savior for special support. (She also gets to deliver a lecture on coping with the Dan Ryan reconstruction.)

A spelling automaton, Jen Sese’s Marcy Park is a grind who’s all business, while Leaf Coneybear (Derrick Trumbly), though the least gifted of this bunch, loves being there even if he fails and somehow “channels” spellings through psychic power. An overachieving Boy Scout, “Chip” Berkowitz (Brad Weinstock) hasn’t learned to lose well. (The exit song, “You were good but not good enough,” doesn’t help.) Finally, large-boned and very driven, William Barfee (Eric Roediger) uses his “magic foot” to write out the words in advance.

Arrayed on bleachers in the school gym, these “kids” don’t need to get a life. Parent problems, wrenching eliminations and crazy rules notwithstanding, these wordsmiths are living la vida loca large, thanks to a supple score by William (“Falsettos”) Finn. The contagion is wonderful. The ultimate revenge of the nerds is getting it right the first time. Can you spell h-i-t?


©2005-2006, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee