For the children who compete in them, spelling bees are a very big deal. They represent an arena where poor kids, rural kids and the kids of immigrants can find identity and pride. Indian-Americans, like the winner of this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee, Kavya Shivashankar, seem to do particularly well. Winning requires discipline, stamina, nerves and a profound attention to detail; as the wonderful documentary Spellbound shows, kids give up huge chunks of their childhoods to the ideal of spelling. But bees are also utterly trivial. They're not even good predictors of intellect. Being a terrific speller may correlate with serious intellectual or creative power, but it usually doesn't — although there are periodic almost-transformative moments at bees when, at the outer reaches of difficulty and having combed through his or her knowledge of language uses and origins, a competitor takes a leap of faith. It seems that even in these rigid contests, intuition has its place. The authors of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are aware of both the importance of bees and their core and essential silliness. They get us to empathize with the kids' fierce ambitions, then conjure Jesus himself to explain that events like this are nowhere on his list of priorities.
The six contenders are a jock fighting adolescent urges; the daughter of two gay men who pressure her relentlessly to succeed; a flaky hippie who channels his answers from who-knows-where; an obsessive smart guy with an unhealthy reliance on his own foot; a grim, over-achieving little blond; and shy Olive, who's desperate for her parents' attention: Her father is too busy to pay attention to her pursuits, and her mother is seeking enlightenment in India. Rounding out the cast are three adults who have also been forced to come to terms with their own limitations. Rona Lisa Peretti, whose spelling bee win many years earlier was the high point of her life, and vice principal Douglas Panch — bitter at his failure to rise higher — run the contest, and one-time hoodlum Mitch Mahoney comforts the losers and hands out boxes of juice as part of his court-ordered community service. Four audience members are recruited to join the team at each performance, and watching the cast improvise with and around these people provides much of the fun of the first act. In the second, though, the kids' traumas and concerns come to the fore.
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I saw this show some years ago in Denver and enjoyed it thoroughly, but it's even more fun at Boulder's Dinner Theatre, because the action is designed for an intimate venue. All the performances are full of zizz, humor and energy. Shelly Cox-Robie is empathy personified as Rona Lisa Peretti, and Wayne Kennedy makes Panch futilely waspish. Among the kids, Mary McGroary's Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre and Matthew D. Peters's Leaf Coneybear come close to caricature, but the actors snatch them back from the brink and make them touching. Brian Jackson is a genial jock. It's wonderful so see Anna Hanson as perfectionist Macy Park cut loose when she realizes that it's okay to fail. Best of all are Scott Beyette and Alicia Dunfee (who also directs). Beyette's William Barfee is utterly ridiculous, and yet somehow you ache for this daft kid. As insecure Olive Ostrovsky, Dunfee brilliantly illustrates how an adult actor can fully inhabit the soul of a lost child. At one point, in response to being asked to spell chimerical, Ostrovsky imagines her parents telling her they love her. Though the lyrics for this show are witty, the music isn't particularly memorable, and I'd found "The I Love You Song" too long before. But here, sweetly sung with by Dunfee, Barrett and Cox-Robie — three of the best voices in the cast — I'd happily have listened on and on.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through November 7, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com.
Smart, quirky, unpretentious musicals like this are so much more satisfying than the glitzy ones in which human beings vanish behind their own preternaturally amped voices. Putnam County provides lots of laugh-out-loud moments; a few silly, slightly dirty puns; and a group of kid characters we can care about.