Arts preview: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is funny and surprisingly moving

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From the July 25, 2013 edition

From its title, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” you may guess the surface text of the Tony Award winning musical by composer and lyricist William Finn and playwright Rachel Sheinkin. But only in experiencing it can you grasp the subtext of outsiders succeeding thanks to their differences.

“As a former 185-pound, 5-foot-2-inch fourth grader who resided in rural Oregon with two passionsGilbert and Sullivan and the novels of Charles Dickens, I understand a bit about being an outsider,” confessed Steven Anderson, whodirects the upcoming CATCO production.

The six spellersstruggle with each other, as well as four members of audience, for the nerd nirvana of champion. “‘Spelling Bee’ has a natural dramatic conflict from the competition of the Bee,” Anderson said. The audience develops an affinity to the eccentric underdog contestants who,despite their tics and oddities, are talentedeven brilliant.

Those audience members — in CATCO’s case, a mix of local celebrities and volunteers chosen via pre-show surveys — “add an additional component that makes each night unique,” explained Anderson.There are multiple songs, jokes, spelling words and outcomes which depend on whether each individual audience member spells their word correctly.

“The surprising thing about the play is not how funny it is— and it is plenty funny but how moving it is in surprising ways,” Anderson said. “This is a story about six outsiders. If you approach them as real people, striving to achieve a dream, you cannot fail to not merely please, but touch something deep inside of each of us.