The stress-induced sweat and all-out terror at misspelling a word are palpable in the kiddie contestants of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," the two-time Tony Award-winning 2005 Broadway musical now at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace.
And that helps make this ingenious production into such a crowd-pleasing winner.
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"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"★ ★ ★
Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. (630) 530-8300 or drurylane.com
Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday, through Aug. 17.
Tickets: $40-$50; lunch and dinner packages also available
Parking: Free adjacent garage
Running time: About two hours, 30 minutes with intermission.
Rating: For teens and older; features mild profanity and innuendo
At first glance, these overachieving kids played by adults are all hilarious with their nervous tics and odd mnemonic ways of spelling out words.
But Rachel Sheinkin's smart script and William Finn's quirky songs also imbue the characters with deep inner emotions -- many are driven to shine through competitive spelling as a way to win parental affection from either neglectful mothers or hovering helicopter dads.
Drury Lane director Scott Calcagno masterfully achieves the right balance between the silly and serious. He not only has a great cast at his disposal, but Calcagno's sleek design team also gives this "Spelling Bee" a grandeur not typically bestowed on this well-crafted comedy spiked with improvisational ingenuity.
Set designer Jeff Kmiec's mundane school gym set undergoes some miraculous transformations, while lighting designer Julie Mack cleverly evokes a flashy game show or a fantasy-filled musical variety revue.
The cast wins their comic moments honestly by taking things ever-so-seriously.
To us, this may be just a spelling bee, but to most of the kid contestants (and administrating judges), it's a battle for bragging rights and superiority.
With his frizzy Three-Stooges hair and dour scowls, Eli Branson stands out as the allergy-aflicted William Barfée, especially when his emotions get the better of his indignant exterior.
Landree Fleming makes for a touching Olive Ostrovski, who delights in her wordsmith ways of amusement.
Zack Colona is a wonderfully spacey home-schooled Leaf Coneybear, while Jordan de Leon is great at getting across the inconvenient adolescent angst of the upstanding Chip Tolentino.
As talented kids overburdened with heightened parental expectations, Carolyn Braver and Stephenie Soohyun Park are both adept at finding comically different ways of dealing with the pressure.
And then there are the show's "adults:" Joe Dempsey as vice principal Douglas Panch and Frances Limoncelli as Rona Lisa Peretti. Both are whizzes with improvised (and prepared) jokes with guest audience contestants, while Jonathan Butler-Duplessis whips up plenty of soulful singing as the "comfort counselor" Mitch Mahoney.
Many of the jokes may be overly familiar to those who have already seen "Spelling Bee" locally through the years, but the show still has the power to charm and make audiences gasp when a contestant is eliminated.
"Spelling Bee" truly is a small show that hits well above its weight comically and dramatically, and Drury Lane's grand production does the musical proud.