Theatre Latte Da brings out the braniacs for 'Spelling Bee'

​It's time for the geeks to inherit the earth -- or at least take control of the gym for one day -- in Theatre Latte Da's production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a musical about nine middle-school students who have gathered to compete in a bully-free zone on a subject that they know they can excel at.

"There's an ultimate universality about it, as everyone on the planet wants to feel important," says director Peter Rothstein. "These kids are shunned for 52 weeks of the year, so here is the one day they get to feel important. It's set inside of a gymnasium, and most braniacs don't excel in a gym."

For the cast, the show has been a four-week thrill ride as they've learned the unique rhythms of the play, which has its own underdog story. It started as an improv piece before the music was added. After an Off-Broadway run, it moved to the Great White Way, where it went on to a three-year run, earning a pair of Tony Awards.

Mary Fox first saw the show while in New York, though at the time it was just something she had picked off the TKTS discount booth to see. "From the time I heard the 'I Love You' song I could not stop smiling," she says. "I always remembered that it was this non-traditional musical and that there's a real good message in the show."

The 90-minute, one-act play takes us through the titular contest (in this case, the production has been somewhat localized to the Twin Cities) with six high-strung youth looking for their chance to shine.

"These are real people, not crazy caricatures. There are children who would act like that, so it's really grounded," says actor Derek Prestly.

To prepare, the company watched the 2002 documentary Spellbound, about the students who participate in highly competitive spelling bees.  "I was worried I was going over the top until I saw the movie," Prestly says.

"There was this complete shift," adds cast member Cat Brindisi. "With all of the quirks that they had, we really felt we could take these risks with our characters."

Playing characters who are 11 and 12 years old can be a challenge as well. "I had to think how I acted when I was that age. What mannerisms I had, and how I was sitting or fidgeting or looking around," Fox says.

One of the quirks of Spelling Bee is that there is audience participation, as several people are brought up onstage to take part in the contest. That gives the show an improvisational edge, something quite unusual in a musical. Much of the burden of those moments goes on the two hosts who also provide running color commentary through the show.

That merges with a clever and moving set of songs from William Finn, whose other works includes Falsettos, A New Brain, and a new musical based on Little Miss Sunshine. "The songs can be heart-wrenching and beautiful, and you couldn't pick them up and place them in any other musical. In one song, it starts talking about depression 30 seconds in. You would not get that with a Kander and Ebb ballad. It's like Sondheim. You can't take the songs out of their context and have them make sense," Rothstein says.

"Some of it is hard to sing," Prestly says. "Some of the lines are jumping all over the place. That's true of the choreography, the direction, and the music. There are elements of surprise all over the place."

It stretches beyond this into the technical side, as the lighting will stretch the "real" (the spelling bee) and "fantasy" (singing during the spelling bee) worlds as well. "A lot of the humor here comes from constantly reinventing the rules," Rothstein says.

No matter the humor, the key to the show, and the reason for its extended success, is the deep heart at its center and the love it shows for the quirky kids who know how to spell all the hard words.

"These kids are loners as they go through the world. This is the one place where they can triumph and fit in. They are all eccentric in this place," Rothstein says.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs Thursday through October 30 at the Ordway Center in St. Paul.

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