By Jori Waldron
Oakbrook Terrace’s Drury Lane Theater is among the poshest Chicagoland venues with magnificent chandeliers and plush red seats—setting it up to be the brunt of some of the jokes in its current production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
This show, entertaining for all ages, stands apart from many other musicals in several ways. First, the audience is part of the show, so from the moment patrons walk into the theater, they are audience for a spelling bee rather than a musical performance. The janitor cleans the floors while one of the judges greets some of the guests. Then four lucky people chosen from those who volunteered before the show become part of the bee, spelling words alongside the actors as they compete to become the champion.
In the show, six young contestants compete for a place in the national spelling bee competition, just like the one that many people watch on ESPN each year. A more thorough explanation of the plot and characters may be found here.
Assisted by two judges and a “comfort counselor,” the contestants reveal their individual stories through the production’s cache of memorable songs and lots of laughs (often through quips from the judges). Drury’s Spelling Bee delivers a timeless, universal message about finding ones place in the world.
A highlight of the production is Jeff Kmiec‘s impressively creative set design. His elementary school gymnasium even includes a scoreboard that counts down until show time and during intermission. More surprising is the ability for the gym to magically morph into other locales for the flashbacks and dream sequences within the production.
Based on overall character portrayal, the strongest of the competitors is Leaf Coneybear, played by Zack Colonna. Not only does he have a strong voice, but he also created the most likable character. A self-proclaimed “gentle” child, Leaf is the most realistically childlike—loveable and satisfied with his participation in the bee.
Lacking stage time but with even stronger vocals, is comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney, played by Jonathan Butler-Duplessis. His strong tenor voice shines above some of the larger roles.
Another contestant, Marcy Park, played by Stephenie Soohyun Park, surprises the audience with a multitude of talents in addition to her singing. Olive (Landree Flemming), Rona (Frances Limoncelli) and Mitch, sing one of the most dazzling songs about Olive’s parents and their love for her; William (Eli Branson) performs one of the funniest about his “Magic Foot.”
Signaled by the bell, when the judges announce the winner of the bee, the audience is practically in tears from cheering on their favorites and developing a closeness to the young participants.
Drury’s Spelling Bee is worth the price of admission, even for repeat patrons. Audience participation and room for improvisation by the actors ensures it will be different every performance.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs through August 17 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. Parking is complimentary. Information and tickets ($40-$50 with additional dinner packages and senior and student discounts for some shows) are available online or by phone at 630-530-0111.
Jori Waldron is an English teacher at Wauconda High School, a wife, mother of three and past participant of theatre in various capacities.