This 'Spelling Bee' Buzzes With Humor

October 10, 2011.By Dominic P. Papatola, Pioneer Press.

You don't have to grade on a curve to give theater Latte Da's production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" an "A."

The production - rechristened "The 25th Annual Seven County Metro Area Spelling Bee" for its month-long run at the Ordway Center's McKnight Theatre - bounces along with snappy fun, a score that is tuneful and original-sounding and a well-woven set of performances that capture both the humor and the heartbreak of being a square-peg person in a round-hole world.

The 100-minute, intermission-less show, which charmed off-Broadway audiences in 2005 before moving to the Great White Way, chronicles-as the title implies-a middle school spelling contest.

The competitors are a collection of quirky kids (Marcy Park skipped two grades and speaks six languages; William Barfee spells words by writing them on the floor with his foot). Too, the stage is initially populated with a handful of volunteer contestants from the audience (the last of whom was dispatched from the stage opening night after failing to correctly spell "lysergic acid diethylamide").

Along the way, we learn the back-stories of these kids (pint-sized political activist Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre has two dads; shy Olive Ostrovsky's absent mom is living on an ashram in India) and what drives them in their obscure pursuit of competitive spelling excellence.

Most of the actors playing the young contestants are either college students or relatively recently grads. They consequently bring an authentic sense of energy and chemistry to the production, and also offer a tantalizing and exceedingly promising peek at the future of the local musical theater scene.

The young performers, under the knowing and light-touch direction of Peter Rothstein, universally display skill, poise and a fine sense of natural energy. Among the especially effective is Cat Brindisi, who affects a slump-shouldered lack of confidence as Olive, then goes on to display a set of titanium lined lungs singing the almost operatic "I Love You Song". Alan Bach is winsome and heart-breakingly ingenuous as the home-schooled Leaf Coney bear, who makes his own clothes and disappears into a trance to spell words. As the adenoidal William Barfee ("that's pronounced bar-FAY") Joseph R. Pyfferoen nicely displays both the ample dose of bravado of the competitor and the deep insecurity that resides beneath.

The "adult" performers hold their own as well. While he could have benefited from a little more snark, Tod

Petersen brings an effective deadpan to the role of vice principal and bee moderator Douglas Panch. Brian Frutiger isn't quite as physically intimidating a presence as one might hope for as Mitch Mahoney (an ex-con working off his parole as the bee's juice boxbearing "comfort counselor''), but he more than compensates with a rafter-shaking tenor, displayed in the rocking "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor."

This isn't a dance-heavy show, so Michael Matthew Ferrell's choreography is more whimsical than showy, with coy, insider-joke nods to "A Chorus Line," ''Les Miserables" and "Chicago." His work is the frosting on a fine and sunny show for adults . . . and for kids either young enough not to comprehend or old enough to sit comfortably with an adult through a song called "My Unfortunate Erection."

Capsule: T-E-R-R-I-F-I-C