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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 73.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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University Theatre's Putnam County Spelling Bee charms and amuses
The show is about kids, but adults will enjoy it most.
The show is about kids, but adults will enjoy it most.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

Anyone who doubts that competitive spelling can generate humor and heartbreak surely hasn't seen the wonderful 2002 documentary Spellbound. That film followed several young competitors in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Those kids were an eccentric, driven, lovable bunch. My personal favorite was the little dude who said things like "I am a - musical robot" in a mechanized drone. (To this day, that remains a catchphrase in my house.)

University Theatre's new production, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, mines much of the same emotional territory, albeit in fictionalized, musical form. The result, which opened Friday in UW Vilas Hall's Mitchell Theatre, is fantastic: funny, charming, and -- thankfully -- not as super-squeaky-clean as one might expect.

Our six competitors run the gamut from the homeschooled hippie kid, Leaf Coneybear, to the hyperactive, overachieving girl who looks like a sparkly Disney princess. Yet Putnam doesn't paint these characters as simplistically as you might expect: that blond, crinolined princess is a mini-feminist sporting a "Keep Abortion Legal" button. She's also got two dads (she declares, solemnly, "Jesus had two fathers...think about it").

During the course of a zippy 90 minutes, the kids tackle parental pressure and neglect, fear of failure, emerging hormones and more. Four audience members are also drawn into the action (if you dread forced audience participation, don't worry; would-be participants sign themselves up before the show).

As led by director/choreographer Jenn Stewart and music director John-Stuart Fauquet, this is an extremely solid, professional-level show. While it's hard to single out members of such a fine ensemble, I loved Drew Wolff as the sizeable, cutthroat William Barfee. While the vice principal constantly pronounces his name like "barfy," he insists indignantly that it's "Bar-FAY, with an accent aigu."

With his pale skin, red hair and odd demeanor, Barfee is like an adolescent Philip Seymour Hoffman. During the number "Magic Foot," he reveals the secret to his success, which is spelling out words on the floor with patent oxford so he can visualize them. Aside from his violent peanut allergy, he's unstoppable, and Wolff manages to make this obnoxious kid likable.

Samantha Sostarich, as princessy Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (her surname is a cumbersome mix of her dads' names), is also perfectly cast. Her mannerisms reminded me a bit of Mary Katherine Gallagher, the old Molly Shannon character from Saturday Night Live, but Sostarich's fantastic voice is all her own. Eddie Gray, as the quirky granola kid Leaf Coneybear (his siblings include Pinecone and Raisin), had me in stitches. Overall, the show has a loose, somewhat improvisational quality (which it has to in order to incorporate the four audience members brought onstage). There are also topical insertions that wouldn't have been in the 2005 Broadway version, such as references to the BP oil spill and President Obama.

While the musical may sound disgustingly wholesome, don't bring your 5-year-old; there's a song devoted to a boy's problem with an inconvenient erection, and a few minor expletives. And though the show is about kids, I think adults will enjoy it the most, followed by older kids. Despite a few maudlin moments, Putnam is surprisingly sharp and funny on the whole.

The show's technical elements (scenic design by Sasha Augustine, costumes by Katie Gray, lighting by Katie H. Kudrick) are excellent. Putnam County reaffirmed my general view of University Theatre's high standards.

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