The San Luis Obispo Little Theatre is buzzing with excitement over its new musical comedy, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The Tony Award-winning show, which opens Friday, runs through Nov. 23.
Directed by Dana Shaheen, the musical features six quirky adolescents competing in an annual spelling bee and three eccentric adults who are running the competition. All of the characters are outcasts who find that the spelling bee is the one place where they can fit in and shine in the spotlight.
“I found the material to be so closely aligned with the experience of being involved in theatre,” Shaheen wrote in his director’s notes, comparing spelling bee participants to theater performers. “We might have at one time or another found ourselves laughed at, made fun of, shunned or labeled … only to find true friendships and often a sense of family that can be lacking in the outside world.”
The setting of “Spelling Bee” is the regional finals of the Putnam County Spelling Bee, held at the Putnam Valley Middle School gymnasium.
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Former champion Rona Lisa Peretti (Heather Malcolm) is the contest moderator and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Mike Mesker) is the frustrated judge. Mitch Mahoney (Robin Kirk Wolf) serves as the official comfort counselor for the contestants.
The six young competitors include last year’s spelling bee champion, Charlito “Chip” Tolentino (Gregory Gorrindo), as well as easily distracted Leaf Coneybear (Vincent Lemos), high-strung Logainne “Schwartzy” Schwartzandgrubenierre (Stephanie Wilson), overachiever Marcy Parks (Caitlin Tobin), competitive spelling newcomer Olive Ostrovsky (Madison Shaheen) and previous finalist William Barfée (Garrett Larsen).
Even as misfits, the rivals must deal with familiar adolescent themes such as puberty, junior high crushes and absent parents. Through a variety of rousing musical numbers, the audience learns the back stories of the characters.
“The music is fun and well-written for an ensemble cast,” musical director Lacey McNamara said.
“Spelling Bee” is choreographed by Jeff Larsen and Shannon Lowrie, with set design by David Linfield and costume design by Keith Wetzel of Costume Capers.
Both director Shaheen and McNamara referred to the musical as a “pure and honest” comedy, while Mesker described it as “very funny with sad and touching moments.”
“Anyone can identify with the characters,” he said.
Although the musical is about kids in junior high, the material is very much adult-oriented, Shaheen said.
Audience participation plays an integral part in “Spelling Bee.” Before each performance, four audience members are recruited to be on stage as guest spellers competing with the six contestants. Such an unusual feature makes the show unique and thrilling for the cast and audience.
“Spelling Bee,” which premiered on Broadway in April 2005, features music and lyrics by William Finn, with a book by Rachel Sheinkin and additional material by Jay Reiss. It is based on an original play, “C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E” by Rebecca Feldman.
The musical was nominated for six Tony Awards in 2005 and won two.
As Shaheen put it in his director’s notes, “The theatre geek and the spelling bee geek have the potential to share a kindred spirit.” It is quite possible that the audience will share that spirit as well.
If you go
"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"
7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; through Nov. 23
San Luis Obispo Little Theatre, 888 Morro St., San Luis Obispo
$15 to $29
786-2440 or www.slolittletheatre.org