Uncovering the secret terrors of being a brainiac

October 12, 2011.By Ed Huyck, City Pages.

Growing up, I was a terrible speller, to the point that my parents, who never offered bribes for good behavior or grades, made me a deal in sixth grade. If I got perfect scores on three of the four tests each month, they'd buy me an album. (I didn't manage it every month, but I do recall getting copies of Dark Side of the Moon and Led Zeppelin IV out of the deal).

Bee's geek squad in a show that's like a musical comedy and pop quiz all in one. Which means that while I never went through the singular terrors of the spelling bee, I certainly can empathize with the geeky characters at the center of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. These are my people -- I was captain of the debate and quiz bowl teams and later part of the outcast group at a German language camp, for heaven's sake -- and their troubles, and real triumphs, go much deeper than being able to spell "sluice" correctly.

The strong material (the Broadway production, a real underdog at the time, earned several Tony nominations and a pair of wins) becomes perfect fodder for an excellent Theatre Latte Da production, now playing at the McKnight Theatre at the Ordway Center. A fresh-faced cast brings home the humor, joy, and underlying sadness in the material, aided by some excellent turns by veteran performers.

Latte Da has made a few cosmetic changes to the piece -- it's the seven-county metro area bee here -- but it hasn't changed the important details. We still have six middle-school students wracked by the usual confusion of growing up competing in a high-stakes contest of wits and understanding of arcane spelling rules and quirks.

Though the characters all have their own stories, the action eventually centers on Olive (an excellent performance from Cat Brindisi), a shy girl with abandonment issues (her mother is on a spiritual retreat in India; her father is coming after work). As she moves deeper into the bee, her confidence grows, as does her friendship with fellow contestant William Barfee (Joseph Pyfferoen), whose parade of physical and emotional issues hides a bright young person.

The other four spellers have similar tics and troubles. Logainne (Mary Fox) deals with a lisp and the high expectations of her two dads; Leaf (Alan Bach), dressed like a rejected extra from the 1980s  version of Doctor Who, always feels like the dim one at home and out of place everywhere, including at the bee. Marcy (Sheena Janson), a national finalist from another state the year before, has been pushed to succeed in everything. And Chip (Derek Prestly), the local national finalist from the year before, is fighting the changes in his body (his big number after being knocked out of the competition is "My Unfortunate Erection.")

All six of these actors-several of whom are recent college graduates or wrapping up their education-do excellent work with the material, bringing out both the funny quirks of their characters and the inner turmoil and hurt. They also have plenty of fun with their moments in the spotlight, such as Pyfferoen's Kander-and-Ebb-styled "Magic Foot" and Bach's funny but intense "I'm Not That Smart."

The songs, crafted by William Finn, are a real attraction. They play off musical-theater expectations but twist them into fresh shapes. The opening lines of "The I Love You Song" (a duet between Olive and her absent mother) make it seem as if it's going to be a "we love you, keep your chin up" type song, until Finn brings in depression, disappointment, and anger, making the song much richer than it seems at first blush.

While the serious underpinning gives the play its heart, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is also a funny, funny show. A lot of that comes from the emcees, performed by Tad Petersen and Kim Kivens, who share unusual facts about each of the participants (one, it is noted, is two pieces short of eating an entire board game) and interact not only with the six actors but also three audience volunteers who are dragged onstage to take part in the fun. The opening-night trio were certainly game, even taking part in some of the musical numbers, and it took quite a bit to get the final one off the stage.

Rounding out the cast is Met Opera veteran Brain Frutiger as Mitch, the AC/DC T-shirt-wearing excon working out his community service as the official comfort counselor (he gives the eliminated kids-and audience volunteers-juice boxes). Frutiger gets a chance to belt it out as well, especially in the appropriately titled "Pandemonium."

Director Peter Rothstein does his normal excellent work here, building the natural energy of the bee up to the finale, while always giving the characters their moments in the spotlight. Kudos also to set designer Rick Polenek, who re-creates the site of many of these kids' downfall-the gym-in perfect detail, from the blue pads underneath the basketball hoop to the confusing cornucopia of lines painted on the floor to represent different games.

As a fast-paced, funny entertainment, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee succeeds. As a look into our young lives -- and the doubts we always carry about ourselves and our relationships -- it triumphs.