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Play On Words 

Putnam County performs to a spell-out crowd

Spelling bees are aswarm in our culture through feature films, documentaries, and televised matches on ESPN and prime-time networks. Ironically, in an age of spell check, spelling as a skill may be less relevant than ever. Perhaps the mix of contemporary academic competitiveness and literally old school familiarity makes spelling bees strike a chord across generations. By putting quirky young personalities on a stage and pressuring them to achieve, spelling bees are easier to dramatize than, say, the SATs.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee contains enough social insight to put a stinger on its loopy humor. The hit Broadway musical launches its national touring show with a four-week production at the Alliance Theatre. Creators Rebecca Feldman, Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn goof on musical conventions, a la Urinetown, but the broad comedy contains its share of hard truths.

Compared to the appealing brainiacs of the hit 2002 documentary Spellbound, Putnam County's band of dweeb-tards and ugly ducklings prove to be more extreme eccentrics. Hypochondriacal William Barfée (Eric Petersen) displays the most hostility and worst social skills, including the bizarro technique of spelling out a word with his foot before pronouncing the letters aloud. Petersen's goofy yet graceful gliding motions turn into the full-fledged musical number, "Magic Foot," one of Putnam County's showstoppers.

Other kids satirize 21st-century liberal education: Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Sarah Stiles) serves as "head of the gay-straight alliance of her elementary school." The contestants grapple with touchy-feely learning techniques, stage fright and the early onslaught of puberty. For two of the students, their awkward flirting leads to personal connections and even some unexpected maturity. For Chip Tolentino (Miguel Cervantes), however, hormones undermine his chances. "My protuberance seems to have its own exuberance," he laments in "My Unfortunate Erection."

Putnam's creators gleefully tweak the hidebound rules of spelling bees. When competitors ask the moderators to use a word in a sentence, the examples are usually something like, "Sally's mother told her that her cystitis made her special." For the losers, the Bee features a "comfort counselor" (Alan H. Green), who dispenses hugs and juice boxes before ushering them off the stage.

In the spirit of a little improv theater, the production brings out four volunteer spellers from the audience, whom the moderators introduce with ad-libbed gags. The locals frequently start with an easy word like "cow," then get eliminated with an impossible one. Opening night featured a remarkable moment when the last Atlantan onstage spelled three "impossible" words in a row, to the apparent amazement of the cast and spectators alike. Even if the actors rigged the outcome -- we can only take it on faith that he spelled the words correctly -- the moment had the buzz and spontaneity of great live theater.

Directed by New York City's esteemed James Lapine, Putnam County offers irresistible entertainment but still suffers from some miscalculations. The production inserts Atlanta references, like MARTA and future "President Shirley Franklin," but needn't whore for audience approval so overtly. A few performances tip too far into caricature, like Stiles' with her lisp, squeaky voice and tight, scrunched-up body language.

Despite the show's sense of fun, it can use tightening. The opening-night performance (possibly longer than usual) lasted until almost 10 p.m. with no intermission. The show eventually exhausts its clever premise, and the tangents about the kids' family lives feel like stalling techniques. The shy Olive (Lauren Worsham) has a poignant, lovely song about her absent parents, but it goes on so long and comes so late that it feels interminable.

Still, Putnam County touches on enough grown-up ideas that it deserves to be taken seriously. The scary-looking, out-on-parole comfort counselor comments that, having been sheltered from real hardships, "They don't have the resources to handle disappointment." Logainne, driven by her hyper-competitive gay dads, sings that anything less than first place would be a disaster: "America hates losers."

In his helmet and homemade cape, Leaf Coneybear (Michael Zahler) may be the biggest geek of the show (reminding me a little of Buster, "Arrested Development's" mama's boy). Leaf makes the cut on a fluke, but his respectable early showing teaches him that he might actually be smart -- despite the opinion of his family -- and he discovers the alien sensation of self-esteem.

Marcy Park (Katie Boren) commands the other end of the intellectual pecking order. In her song "I Speak Six Languages," the Asian-American girl extols her academic and athletic accomplishments and even takes over for the show's piano accompanist. Her perfectionism and perpetual triumphs have, paradoxically, been grinding down her spirit. Boren gives Marcy the flat, accentless diction of a middle-aged Midwesterner, as if she's not allowed to just be a kid.

Boren proves to be an impressive singer and dancer, although it's difficult to fairly gauge the cast's musical abilities, since the crooning and choreography rely on such silliness. William Finn's melodies aren't particularly memorable, serving more as vehicles for a lot of jokes and a little characterization. Nevertheless, with its witty portrayal of obsessed misfit minds, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee may qualify as A Chorus Line for the Bill Gates generation.

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