25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Music Box Theater Is W-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l

The spellers: Cay Taylor, Marco Camacho, Beth Lazarou, Braden Hunt, Rick Evans, and Martha Patton.
The spellers: Cay Taylor, Marco Camacho, Beth Lazarou, Braden Hunt, Rick Evans, and Martha Patton.
Photo by Morris Malakoff.

The setup:

Spell eudaemonia.

What's the definition? From the Greek, the state of being happy.

Please use it in a sentence. Music Box Musicals' production of William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee put me on cloud nine, where I experienced a definite sense of eudaemonia.

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So will you.

The execution:

Precocious little Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere (Martha Katherine Patton) -- she has two dads, you see -- stands at the microphone in the middle school gymnasium where the spelling bee is held. Her word to spell is strabismus, a squint caused by a defect in the eye muscles. She asks Vice Principal Panch (Luke Wrobel, all scrunched up shoulders and pants pulled up to his armpits), who's in charge of reading the definitions, to use the word in a sentence. He replies in perfect deadpan: "In the schoolyard Billy protested that he wasn't cockeyed. 'I suffer from strabismus,' he said, whereupon the bullies beat him harder."

This non-PC musical, a smash hit off-Broadway before it moved up to the big boy's street, is amazingly refreshing: its theme is rather inconsequential when you come right down to it; sure it's about winning and losing, but not about winners and losers. Maybe that's why it's so darned appealing.

Six middle school spellers compete "at the bee," augmented by some audience members (who've been chosen earlier in the evening), and the adults: unflappable moderator Rona Lisa Perretti (Kristina Sullivan), aforementioned Panch, and Mitch Mahoney (Chioke Coreathers), who's doing community service by helping out with tough-love guidance as he hands out juice boxes to the kids who get eliminated.

We get to know the other misfit kids as the musical progresses -- Boy Scout Chip Tolentino (Marco Camacho) who gets distracted by a raging erection; flighty Leaf Coneybear (Braden Hunt) who doesn't think he's smart, although he can spell without even thinking about it; William Barfee (Rick Evans), the know-it-all nerd with a mucous membrane disorder who spells with his "magic foot;" Olive Ostrovsky (Cay Taylor), who waits in vain for her dad to arrive and whose mom is off at an ashram in India; and Marcy Park (Beth Lazarou), who speaks six languages, plays Chopin and rugby, never cries, and is the classic overachiever. They're all looking for something -- acceptance for who they are, for a start -- and they all grow up a little under the fresh music and lyrics by William Finn (Falsettos, A New Brain) and the wickedly sly book by Rachel Sheinkin, who won a 2005 Tony award for Best Book of a Musical. With spirited direction by Michael J. Ross and Adam W. Delka, and swinging musical direction by Glenn Sharp, Music Box Musicals and MJR Theatricals makes the most of this minimal little showstopper.

The verdict:

Flawlessly performed, this production has a grand heart, a warm soul, and a breezy, winning style. You could spell it a-b-s-o-l-u-t-e-l-y w-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l.

This bouncy chamber musical romps through May 4 at Music Box Theater, 2623 Colquitt. Purchase tickets online at themusicboxtheater.com or call 713-522-7722. $35-$45.


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