Can you spell fun?
Because that’s how easy it is to let Studio Players’ summer musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” sweep you away from your everyday troubles into the awkward, angst-ridden, pubescent and wackily charming world of a fictional middle school spelling bee.
The show is a high-energy, high-laughter extravaganza of awkward moments by awkward teenagers and hapless adults, with sudden outbursts of silliness or sweetness endearing the audience to the colorful menagerie of tween characters and their plight.
The plot is pretty simple. Who is going to win? But it is how the young contestants navigate their way through the bee — the fears faced, relationships formed, discoveries made — that drives the show in delightfully surprising ways.
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Fun is contagious, and the high school-aged cast members are clearly infected. Maybe it is because they are young and uncrushed by the world, but I suspect it has a lot to do with Eric Seale’s direction, about which I probably know more than a critic maybe should.
From my years covering theater in the region, I know Seale has a history of bringing out the best in teen performers. I remember Seale’s leadership and involvement in Apprentice Players, a theater group composed of area youngsters that produced edgy works in the late 2000s. And I’ve interviewed young people Seale has worked with who praise his creative process, particularly his approach to character development.
So I was not totally surprised that each member of the ensemble had developed a distinctly drawn character inhabited by plenty of goofy, strange, and endearing nuances.
Take Je’Shaun Jackson’s role of William Barfee. Intense does not begin to describe Barfee’s determined stare. We don’t know what the hulking chip on his shoulder is about, but we know something must really be troubling him on the inside for him to act so fiercely combative. “I know,” is his signature line volleyed back at the judges with a piercing glare after he has spelled a word correctly. Combine his mysterious angst with the ridiculous gimmick of using his “magic foot” to help him spell (he takes his sock off and traces letters on the ground with his bare foot) and you have one fascinating, hilarious, and entertaining character.
Likewise, Lydia Marie Robison’s character Marcy Park, an overachieving Catholic school girl who speaks six languages, is hilarious in her dry passion for perfection, which makes her second act rebellion against it all the more enjoyable.
Jackson and Park are not unique in the development of unforgettably quirky characters with some surprising substance beneath the surface. Jordan Durham, Rebecca Keith, Sydney Johnson, and Jonathan Adkins all deliver soundly wrought characters with a range of silly to serious and with sharp comedic timing to boot.
What’s more, they can sing and dance. Jessica Green’s vocal directing and Diana Evans Pulliam’s choreography work together to make the most of William Finn’s music and lyrics. Pro tip: look for Rebecca Keith’s number “The I Love You Song” as Olive Ostrovsky in the second act. Her voice is achingly piercing and, for a few minutes, relieves the show of its levity as she grapples with some real emotional pain, soaringly rendered.
Perhaps that is the secret to what makes these characters tick. They are oddball and young and pubescent in every sense, which means behind their quirks lies plenty of pain and confusion, a hallmark of adolescence that these actors are able to palpably hint at without going all emo.
Yes, this show is light and fun, but it also has a message about the growing pains we all struggle to endure, even grownups.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’
What: Studio Players’ production of the hit musical comedy
When: 8 p.m. July 20-22, 27-29; 2:30 p.m. July 23 and 30
Where: Carriage House Theatre, 154 W. Bell Ct.