Laughing and Crying at Broadway Palm's The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

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For people who aren't on the Falsettoland train, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is probably the William Finn musical they're familiar with. I love William Finn with all my heart -- the very first Curtains blog was a wordy, gushing review of his A New Brain.

The current Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre production of Spelling Bee is a lovely and reverent version (of a show that's sneakily transgressive), with fabulous voices, sweet designs, and near-relentless humor.

The creative team (winners all) has stuck close to the costumes, choreography, and even the hairstyles of the Broadway production and tour. Those are rock-solid choices, and they leave plenty of room for individual quirks that help each performer utterly own the roles.

For example, when speller Leaf Coneybear, a spacey-but-gifted black sheep from a large homeschooled family, produces a finger puppet at one point, actor Ryan Dean Albers whips out a tiny, action-figure-like replica of himself, complete with red cape and aluminum-foil helmet. His character is partly about rampant, inherent self-esteem, and this nails it.

Each of the children (played by adults) has a richly detailed origin and faces unique challenges. Some are used to winning and don't; some have only the arena of spelling in which to shine. Budding hormones come into play from time to time, and parenting is all over the map.

This makes for the moments that make me cry for Coneybear and for Olive Ostrovsky (Elizabeth McMonagle), whose depressed mom is in India on a spiritual quest, and at random other moments. But I laughed a lot more. As in all the time.

This play has a song with the title (and lyrics) "My Unfortunate Erection." It's so not a big deal, and hipster downtown Mesa (who could have predicted that happening?) had no problem with it when Mesa Encore presented the show. Out at Brown and Higley, however, it's "My Unfortunate Distraction." (It's an authorized alternate and is used -- sometimes not exactly the way Finn instructs -- in schools and lots of other immature places.) We all know what it is, and it still works.

The overall investment of each member of this company in each aspect of this production pays off big-time. Despite having wowed Broadway and continuing to tour nationally, Spelling Bee's a blockbuster that not "everybody" has seen, and this is a good opportunity to see it done quite well -- or to see it again because you loved it the first time.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which is "rated" "PG-13" by the theater, continues through Saturday, October 1, at 5247 East Brown Road in Mesa. Admission is $39 ($18 for students with ID) and comes with a full buffet that includes tea, coffee, and many options for people on restricted diets. Call 480-325-6700 for tickets or click here.

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