The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Stage - By Christo­pher Blank

/ Spe­cial to The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

IN THE PAST 10 years or so, there has been a hand­ful of Broad­way mu­si­cals that seem per­fectly con­ceived for the re­gional the­ater stage, such as “Av­enue Q,” the mu­si­cal with hand pup­pets, or “The Drowsy Chap­er­one,” set in the small apart­ment of a mu­si­cal the­ater afi­cionado.

One might even go a few notches down from re­gional the­ater with “The 25th An­nual Put­nam County Spell­ing Bee,” which opened the sea­son at Play­house on the Square last week­end.

The ideal venue for this hi­lar­i­ous, char­ac­ter-driven mu­si­cal is prob­a­bly a com­mu­nity cen­ter. Even bet­ter: the leg­endary combo cafe­te­ria/au­di­to­rium of child­hood mem­ory, also known as the cafe­to­rium.

The rea­son the show works so well the fur­ther it gets from the for­mal­ity of a “the­ater” is that it al­ready brims with in­for­mal, child­like en­thu­si­asm. The less the per­form­ers seem like ac­tors and the more they come across as real kids in a spell­ing con­test, the more the au­di­ence gets into it. They’re root­ing for their fa­vorite kid. They’re spell­ing along with the con­tes­tants.

We want to for­get that we’re in a the­ater and in­stead feel that we’re at the

ul­ti­mate sport­ing event for word nerds.

The Broad­way tour that came to the Or­pheum a while back cer­tainly did jus­tice to the script by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin. But the more ex­cit­ing show is the home­grown Play­house pro­duc­tion.

Di­rec­tor Dave Lan­dis once again in­fuses his stag­ing with spirit and vi­tal­ity. He lets the ac­tors ex­ist in their own worlds, just as, if you’ve ever watched a spell­ing bee on tele­vi­sion, the con­tes­tants are def­i­nitely lost in theirs.

“Spell­ing Bee” is about five youngsters who have a gift. They are the best spellers in their schools, and only one of them can make it to the na­tional com­pe­ti­tion. A few vol­un­teers from the au­di­ence are also in­vited to join the spellers dur­ing the first half of the show.

It’s hard to imag­ine any ac­tor turn­ing down a chance to play one of the won­der­fully vivid char­ac­ters in the show, but the key to get­ting it right — as does this cast — is also mak­ing the char­ac­ters ap­pear awk­ward and, in a way, pa­thetic.

Stephen An­drew Parker plays the Boy Scout whose un­for­tu­nate en­counter with ado­les­cence is a se­ri­ous dis­trac­tion to his spell­ing. Laura Stracko is ex­cel­lent as the pig-tailed daugh­ter of two gay men driv­ing her to per­fec­tion. Lili Thomas has a shin­ing mo­ment as the stereo­typ­i­cal over­achiever, speaker of six lan­guages, who comes to re­al­ize that winning doesn’t mat­ter.

David Ryan is the “not that smart” kid who wears a cape and makes his own clothes. Nicole Re­nee Hale plays the sweet girl from a bro­ken home who just wants her par­ents to love her. Fi­nally, there is the inim­itable Pete Mont­gomery as the slovenly, iras­ci­ble dweeb who spells words with his “magic foot.”

Jenny Odle Madden and Michael Gravois give ex­cel­lent turns as the or­ga­niz­ers of the bee, and Thomas King plays a tough guy serv­ing out his pa­role as coun­selor to the losers.

“Spell­ing Bee” up­roar­i­ously gets into the heads of nearly all the char­ac­ters on­stage. By the end you not only love them, but you also want to give each of them a big hug and say “con­grat­u­la­tions.”

Pho­tos by Rory Dale

David Ryan, Laura Stracko and Thomas “TeKay” King are part of the vivid cast of char­ac­ters in Play­house’s “Put­nam County Spell­ing Bee.’’

Stephen An­drew Parker por­trays a Boy Scout whose spell­ing is im­paired by his en­counter with ado­les­cence.

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