In 2005, a quirky new musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by William Finn, Rachel Sheinkin, and Rebecca Feldman, hit the Broadway stage. This September, Three Brothers Theatre in Waukegan brings this feel-good show to the Northern Suburbs as this theater company’s first post-covid shutdown production. Excitedly, I drove the 20 minutes from my home to the off-beat little theater on an off-beat little street and brought my 13-year-old son along. I had seen the first Chicago production of this show in 2006 and remembered how funny it was, though some of the details, such as who won the Bee or the fact that the show includes 4 audience spellers, had left me. I couldn’t wait to see Spelling Bee again, support this local theater and share a musical gem with my son.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a short show, sometimes without an intermission, though Three Brothers does include one, that follows the final Spelling Bee competition in a nondescript American county, revealing to us the eccentric people who love to spell and compete in spelling bees. Each of the 6 cast contestants (remember, there are also 4 contestants pulled from the audience), represents all different kinds of kids who might find themselves excelling at spelling and the different ways these kids succeed. Laughter fills the theater throughout the show as we giggle at the adorable idiosyncrasies each character brings to the Bee. I think I’ve also loved this show because I love language and so much of the humor is laughing at our words and how they are used. We also smile as each “child” reveals to us something about themselves through song, and as a result, we grow to love each of the “children.”
Three Brothers Theatre is the perfect place to stage Spelling Bee. It is a small and intimate space, so the audience really feels immersed in the show and action. My son and I laughed as we entered and instantly felt we were in a middle school gymnasium, right down to the award banners hanging on the wall that awarded such titles as “Tug of War Runner Up.” Living in the far northern suburbs, we also appreciated the short drive and easy street parking to see our show. The show begins with Rona Lisa (Julie Burt Nichols), the spelling bee moderator, who introduces us to what we are about to see and the excitement we will feel by being part of this Bee! All of our characters arrive, including the four audience members selected to participate.
A strength of this show is the casting and direction by Caroline Beadle and Kyle David Perry. Adults playing children can be difficult because as an audience, we are watching grown men and women but must believe we see children before us. I had no problem with this! Each actor created completely believable and distinct child characters. I remembered the character of Leaf, played at Three Brothers by Beck Damron, from my first viewing of this show over a decade ago and Damron lived up to expectations of this goofy kid. He is like every adorable, ADHD little lovable boy you have ever met. Sweet and shy Olive played by Rae Robeson stole my heart. Actors Emily Turner as Logainne and Mark Bracken as Barfee, mastered their speech impediments, while Turner’s vulnerability and Bracken’s confidence helped me to cheer them on. And the expectations on poor Marcy (Hannah Descartin) and Chip (Eric Freitas) elicited in me the need to hug them both! Spelling Bee’s humor depends not just on language but on the clear-cut characters created by the actors. Directors Beadle and Perry did an amazing job in supporting their cast to grow into these roles. The three “adults” in the show, Nichols, Zach Kunde as Vice Principal Panch and Hector Cruz as Mitch, the comfort counselor, round out a fantastic cast. Kunde’s timing is especially impeccable and it is often his lines we are laughing at the most.
I want to encourage everyone reading this review to see this show. First and foremost, it is funny! My son and I have been laughing about it and quoting lines all weekend. We have been talking about the characters and the songs since we saw it two nights ago. You will leave the theater in a good mood with the endorphins created from laughter coursing through your body. Second, you will be supporting local theater, and this is truly what makes the Chicagoland theater scene great. I had never been to a Three Brothers show before but I know I will go again. Despite all of this, I would not show integrity without commenting briefly on my one critique. Although The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical, the one thing lacking in this show was a group of powerful voices. Nichols, starting off the show, was great! But when the cast reached the first big chorus number, Pandemonium, I waited for their sound to explode in the small space and it never did. Individually, some of the performers also struggled. However, I could look past this for all of the other great things about this show and production. And Olive’s song, The I Love You Song, towards the end of the show, sung by an incredibly talented Rae Robinson, haunted me and broke my heart; I could forgive all other shortcomings of the vocals earlier in the production because of her number.
If you have never seen The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee or if you have seen it many times before, you must go see the Three Brothers production in Waukegan. You will leave with a smile on your face, joy in your heart and will support everything that is amazing about local theater!
Get tickets here for the Three Brothers Theatre production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee running now through September 24th. The show is rated PG.