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The cast of 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.'
The cast of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." (Joan Marcus)
STAGE REVIEW

Warmth, wit of 'Bee' casts a charming spell

OK, I admit it. As part of a team that lost the final round of an adult spelling bee one year by putting a Y in ``xiphoid," then rebounded in triumph the next year with ``yare," I cannot be trusted as an objective observer of ``The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." But, despite the angry e-mail I once got from a 12-year-old about my scathing review of ``Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie," asking why ``the whole thing was just your opinion," critics are not, in fact, supposed to be objective.

So: I loved it. But the really good news is, that 12-year-old probably will, too.

In fact, anyone who is now or has ever been a self-conscious, slightly neurotic child will love this show. Now making an extended appearance at the Wilbur Theatre, it is everything you've heard it was, from the first production at Barrington Stage Company through its off- and on-Broadway runs: sweet, charming, and surprisingly touching. And, most of all, fun.

The premise, which grew out of a mostly improvised show originally developed by Rebecca Feldman, is wonderfully simple. We're at the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, watching a perfectly motley assortment of kids -- the home-schooled hippie, the driven overachiever, the introverted book lover, the nervous Boy Scout, and, especially, the heartbreakingly self-aware, chubby nerd named William Barfee -- battle their way past such dragons as ``chimerical" and ``hasenpfeffer."

We've all been there. OK, maybe the rest of you don't still remember the words you won or lost on, but we've all been there. And that's part of the charm of this ``Bee": the joy of seeing a shared torment re-created, and of being able to stay safely out of it.

Another key to the charm, though, is the audience members who don't stay out of it. Audience participation can be a cringe-inducing nightmare, but in this show it's an essential element of the chemistry. At each performance, a few volunteers join the actors onstage and are expertly woven into the songs, dances, and jokes. Seeing ordinary people get caught up in the energy of the bee makes it funnier and more real.

Of course, they lose. Not right away, necessarily, but Rachel Sheinkin's book for the show deftly preserves its central plot by including some surefire killers for the volunteers. I'd tell you what they are, but I can't spell them. Neither could anyone else at the performance I saw.

Sheinkin's warmth and wit, beautifully mirrored and expanded in William Finn's delightful songs, are the final key to the enduring appeal of ``Putnam County." Both music and story, slight as they are, make these kids more than the sum of their stereotypes.

So does the enthusiastic band of actors prancing and tripping around designer Beowulf Boritt's simple school-gym set. Stanley Bahorek, as granola-fed spaceshot Leaf Coneybear, is particularly sweet; Sara Inbar gives Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre a geeky awkwardness to go with her amusingly clumsy name, and Jared Gertner bellows and thumps hilariously as poor pudgy William. (``It's pronounced Bar-fay!" he insists. ``There's an accent aigu!)

When the spelling speeds up to comical levels, then turns agonizingly slo-mo, it's one of the moments that makes you laugh out loud even as you writhe in empathetic agony with kids under pressure. But it's a delightful agony. Everyone up there is having so much fun that the whole audience does, too. Here's hoping the Wilbur's transformation into Putnam County lasts for a good long spell.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

'Spelling Bee' 'Spelling Bee' stars share a few words
"When I started writing the show, I thought it was about the incipient horrors of adulthood," says "Spelling Bee" composer and lyricist William Finn. "I realized the more I worked on it that that is exactly what it's not about."
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