OFFBEAT: Theatre at Center 'Spelling Bee' makes the grade for fun

Phil Potempa's daily entertainment news column
2013-07-16T00:00:00Z OFFBEAT: Theatre at Center 'Spelling Bee' makes the grade for funBy Philip Potempa, (219) 852-4327

Sunday ranked as my fifth time seeing a production of the popular musical comedy hit "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," now playing through Aug. 18 at Theatre at the Center in Munster.

It first hit the Chicago area in 2006, for a Broadway in Chicago open-run at what was the Drury Lane Theatre at Water Tower Place, following the sensation it caused Off-Broadway in New York the previous year.

But prior to seeing Sunday's performance at Theatre at the Center, I had never really heard some of the most moving lines from an important number that comes near the close of the two-hour show by one of the young contestant characters named Olive. For this run, it is accomplished actress Nicole Miller (who we previously saw in this same stage space last spring for a right-on-target portrayal of a young Debbie Reynolds in "What a Glorious Feeling") who plays conflicted Olive and makes every one of her sung lyrics count for her "The 'I Love You' Song."

With the direction of David Perkovich, this latest run of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is a great place to be for audiences looking for a fun and light-hearted stage diversion. And especially if you've never seen this show before, you're in for an extra special treat.

Sometimes, the two "adult" characters who host the spelling bee contest get short-changed in notice, compared to the attention given to the six students participation. For this cast, these roles of Vice Principal Doug Panch, played by Jake Mahler and former spelling bee winner-turned-realtor Rona Lisa Perretti, played by Cory Goodrich, are especially stellar, with both very quick for some of the needed impromptu comebacks with contestants.

Patrick Tierney is comfortably cast as "Leaf Coneybear," the superhero cape-wearing spastic teen with an uncanny and unpredictable spelling talent. One thing missing is the needed special effects element, usually done with lighting and sound, to convey the sudden "correct spelling epiphany bursts," his character experiences.

Featuring witty and endearing music and lyrics by William Finn and a fun story woven by Rachel Sheinkin, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is the touching story of a group of prepubescent overachievers who are pitted against one another in the spelling challenge of a lifetime.

Rose Le Tran does a great turn as Marcy Park, one of the contestant roles who can sometimes be left in the shadow of the acting competition. When she belts out her song "I Speak Six Languages" in Act 2, she has her black leather patent shoes firmly planted and is a force to be reckoned with. Jonathan Wagner is good as William Barfee, but there's still some room for him to kick up his annoyance factor.

My male stand-out favorite is talented Frank J. Paul, whose Boy Scout character Chip Tolentino is fast and funny. He is an actor with a natural stage presence and excellent comic timing. Rounding out he cast are Landree Fleming, who nicely finds her fit as Logainne, the little girl with a big voice and Bear Bellinger, who needs a bit more intimation and a stronger hand as "comfort counselor" Mitch Mahoney. Tickets are $38 - $42 at (219) 836-3255 or

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at or (219) 852-4327.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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