The core of the drama is built into The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee: Many will compete, but only one will win. Yet the show avoids the brute, soul-draining competition of Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 movie documentary Spellbound. Instead, its beguiling sweet pathos originates in Rachel Sheinkin’s one-act comedy, which lyricist William Finn expanded into this award-winning musical, which opens the Redhouse Arts Center season.
The six kids in the bee might be nerdy misfits, but Sheinkin’s near-caricatures are loving and empathetic. Sharper laughter is directed toward the self-important adults running the bee, like the champion real estate saleswoman Rona Piretti (Laura Austin) and a shamelessly biased word reader, assistant principal Panch (John Bixler). Recent parolee Mitch Mahoney (Temar Underwood) offers comfort to one failed contestant: a box of fruit juice, with its own straw.
Director Stephen Svoboda has skillfully cast a mix of company favorites and out-of-towners as the six harried competitors. Often their musical numbers project personal baggage as well as their fear and dread when they get to the microphone. The deeper worry for hapless Boy Scout Chip (David Cotter) is the way his hormones have a way of rushing to his groin in “My Unfortunate Erection.” Self-doubt overwhelms the Superman-cape wearing Leaf Coneybear (Matthew Elliott) in the lament, “I’m Not That Smart.” But it’s family worries that hobble pigtailed Logainne (Grace Allyn). She sings “Woe is Me” because of the stigma of “two daddies” while her birth mother (“B.M.”) lives in a Kansas trailer park.
The other three charge harder. Lonely, needful Olive (Robin Virginie) has only a dictionary as a friend. Sinus-challenged William Barfee (Ben Wells) relies on his foolproof “Magic Foot.” But relentless Marcy Park (Ashley Taylor-Poppi) ponders the freedom of taking a dive in “I Speak Six Languages.”
Raunchy improvisations highlight The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’s special adults-only performances on Wednesdays, Sept. 17 and Sept. 24, 7:30 p.m., at the Redhouse Arts Center, 201 S. West St. Call 362-2785 for details.
Above photo: Redhouse’s Facebook page