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Thursday, October 15,2009

Who knew a spelling bee could be so much fun?

S-u-c-c-e-s-s. Success

By Gary Zeidner
In the world of pop culture, you can't walk to the corner store for a soda without running into 15 examples of paeans to the popular kids. Plays, movies and songs seem to suckle at the teat of social acceptance as they lavish praise on the beautiful and adroit, the alpha males and females. If you're the captain of the football team, the head cheerleader or even the bad-boy loner smoking at the edge of school grounds during lunch break, the world idolizes you.

But what of the freaks and geeks? Where are the odes to the marginalized ones, the mathletes, science fair medalists and chess club kings? As a culture, we can't get enough of mainstream pursuits while, for the most part, the less glamorous and often far more cerebral forms of competition are forgotten faster than allegations of Michael Jackson's pedophilia. That is why it is so gratifying when, once in a while, a show comes along that champions the underdogs, those who can't or won't walk the path of popularity. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is such a show.

Dancing back and forth between silliness and sentimentality, broad humor and heartfelt emotion, the show more than deserves its two 2005 Tony Awards. Boulder's Dinner Theatre takes this exceptional source material and elevates it into a truly outstanding theatrical event.

My last experience with a spelling bee was coming in second back in grade school. My companions believe it or not watch the Scripps National Spelling Bee on television every year and are so far into it that they even mimic some of the more notable competitors' idiosyncrasies. We all found this musical delightfully entertaining.

There is no subterfuge, subtle or otherwise, to the setting and setup of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. It is simply the story of six striving students who've set their sights on spelling bee supremacy.

The entire show takes place over the course of a oneday bee, yet it manages to make every character a living, breathing, three-dimensional reality. We learn why Marcy Park (Anna Hanson) is so driven yet so unfulfilled. We watch Leaf Coneybear (Matthew D. Peters) come to terms with his place in his family and the world. And we get to see Chip Tolentino (Brian Jackson) sideswiped by the pitfalls of early pubescence. (Prudes beware: untimely erections and the like rear their heads in this alternately sweet and somewhat adult production.)

As usual, BDT veterans and relative newcomers alike produce a whole much greater than its parts. Perennial jester and BDT MVP, Wayne Kennedy, wrings more laughs than one would possibly expect from his smallish role as the Vice Principal officiating the bee. Showing amazing versatility, Alicia Dunfee, who just a few years ago scorched the stage as the sultry Velma Kelly in Chicago, plays little-girl-lost elementary schoolgirl, Olive Ostrovsky, with such awareness and authenticity that her performance could be considered award-worthy.

Another interesting and unusual element of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is its inclusion of untrained and unrehearsed members of the audience in not just a scene or two but in a significant part of the show. Four volunteers are chosen at the beginning of each performance to round out the 10-person pool of spelling bee contestants. These lucky amateur actors not only spell along with the BDT pros, they are the target of humorous observations by judges Kennedy and Shelly Cox- Robie, and they are even incorporated into song and dance numbers so fluidly its hard to believe they're not shills. (I checked. They're not.)

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is Boulder's Dinner Theatre at its best. Whether you were or are a jock or a nerd, a diva or a wallflower, you'll probably enjoy this snapshot of the misunderstood. You'll definitely laugh, and maybe a little surprisingly, you might even shed a tear as these archetypical outcasts spell their way toward the trophy.

On the Bill

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee plays through November 7 at Boulder's Dinner Theatre. Tickets range from $35 to $55. 5501 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com.

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