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Griffin Theatre’s ‘Spelling Bee’ ideally suited for the times

LaurMcClais among ensemble cast “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” GriffTheatre.

Laura McClain is among the ensemble cast of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Griffin Theatre.

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Highy Recommended

When: Through Dec. 15

Where: Griffin Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont

Tickets : $36

Info: (773) 975-8150;

Run time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission

Updated: November 7, 2013 7:22PM

‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the beguiling little musical chosen to open Griffin Theatre’s 25th anniversary season, unfolds in a typical high school gym complete with basketball hoops and bleacher seats.

It is there that a pack of six neurotic teens (briefly buttressed by four pre-selected audience members) vie for a trophy, and chance to make it to the next highest round of competition.

Overseeing the bee is Rona Lisa Peretti (expertly played in subtle high-drive by Laura McClain), a real estate agent and long-ago winner, and the school’s somewhat aberrant vice principal, Douglas Panch (Andy Cameron). Assigned to serve as the hug-and juicebox-dispensing “bouncer” who must gently but firmly usher out the disqualified is Mitch Mahoney (a perfectly droll Steven Perkins). Mitch, who is doing his post-prison community service at the bee, offers this bit of wisdom: Disappointment DOES matter, but THIS is nothing.

You don’t have to love dictionaries to find delight in this musical, which arrived on Broadway in 2005, was conceived by Rebecca Feldman, and features a zippy, aptly eccentric score by William Finn and an alternately funny and touching Tony Award-winning book by Rachel Sheinkin. But who doesn’t love derivations and definitions and the sheer magic of language? And at a time when kids are being so pushed, prepped, tested and fueled by adult anxieties, something about this show just feels made-to-order. The danger that lurks is that the whole thing can become overly cute and precious. But director Scott Weinstein and his cast have neatly sidestepped such pitfalls.

The adolescent spellers include Olive Ostrovsky (Charlotte Mae Ellison, a supremely natural actress), whose mom is off at an ashram in India and whose dad has neglected to pay the contest entry fee or show up at the event; Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Landree Fleming as the politicized nerd trying to please her gay dads); Marcy Park (Rochelle Therrien, perfect as the multilingual overachiever); Charlito “Chip” Tolentino (William Lucas, ideal as the most mature guy, distracted by sexual fantasies); William Barfee (Conor McCahill, a bundle of neuroses as the high-strung, allergy-ridden kid who spells out words with his foot), and Leaf Coneybear (Daniel Desmarias as the sweet, imaginative loser ).

Music director Matt Deitchmann leads an expert band that includes Kevin Reeks, Mike Matlock and Dylan Frank in this show that is just acerbic, poignant and nutty enough to suggest these kids will take their scars into adulthood, along with memories of the bee.

Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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