Competing. Being judged. The anxiousness arrives early in life and just sticks around, making each day seem like a contest.
Perhaps this is why people respond so strongly to stories about competitions, whether fictional, as in this year’s popular independent film “Little Miss Sunshine,” or factual, as in each day’s sports reports. It certainly helps to explain why audiences respond so strongly to the unassuming little musical known as “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
The show, which follows six elementary- and middle school-age contestants through a local spelling bee, generated such positive buzz off-Broadway in early 2005 that it transferred to Broadway, where it has been playing for more than a year and a half. Its national tour just reached the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the closest the show has come yet to Los Angeles. Actual arrival in the city is still several months off, in late May.
The spellers are portrayed by adults whose attire -- school uniforms, pink overalls and so forth -- and endearingly awkward body language indicate the characters’ much younger ages. Having reached the county finals, they stand in a school gym where they take turns at a microphone, spelling such words as staphylococcus, antediluvian and hasenpfeffer.
Though much of “Spelling Bee” is laugh-out-loud funny, the show quickly develops an emotional pull as the audience gets to know each contestant. Interior monologues, often in the form of songs, reveal what the kids are thinking.
Composer-lyricist William Finn (“Falsettos”) gives the show a bright, bouncy, tinkling piano sound that seems a bit vaudeville, a bit “Sesame Street.” Each character gets a musical theme shaped to his or her personality and lyrics that are smart, funny and loaded with detail.
The contestants who don’t get songs are the additional four called from the audience (sign-ups and interviews are held beforehand in the lobby). Their presence provides a frisson of unpredictability and gives the audience something genuine to root for.
They join mellow but under-confident Leaf Coneybear (Michael Zahler), theme song: “I’m Not That Smart"; overachiever Marcy Park (Katie Boren), “I Speak Six Languages"; hormone-distracted prior winner Chip Tolentino (Miguel Cervantes), “My Unfortunate Erection"; hyper-aware, socially conscious Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Sarah Stiles), “Woe Is Me"; sweet-natured, ignored-at-home Olive Ostrovsky (Lauren Worsham), “My Friend, the Dictionary"; and mucous-challenged, secret-weapon-packing William Barfee (Eric Petersen), “Magic Foot.”
These kids pretty much all feel like misfits, no matter how intelligent and filled with potential they clearly are. The adults in charge of the bee -- portrayed by Jennifer Simard, James Kall and Alan H. Green -- are only marginally better off.
A loose, lively, off-the-wall spirit remains from before Finn’s involvement, when this was an improvisational comedy by a group known as the Farm. The show has a formal script by Rachel Sheinkin, which won the 2005 Tony Award for best musical book, but it leaves the actors enough room to play around, so that they can really make these characters their own.
Orange County isn’t seeing any of the role originators, but these performers are all great -- and they look to be having a great time working within the clever but unobtrusive staging developed by director James Lapine and choreographer Dan Knechtges.
The show -- performed in an hour and 45 minutes, without intermission -- is generally appropriate for children, though parents should think ahead about how much explaining they might have to do about Chip’s “Unfortunate Erection.”
The goings-on are so silly, at times, that they work against the nice build of emotion. Even so, the show achieves a poignancy that will leave many theatergoers dabbing at the corners of their eyes.
So the big decision isn’t whether to see “Spelling Bee” but where: in 2,977-seat Segerstrom Hall now or at the 503-seat Brentwood Theatre in the spring. Casting for L.A. hasn’t been announced.
‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’
Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. today and Tuesday through next Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Dec. 31
Price: $20 to $70
Contact: (714) 556-2787 or www.ocpac.org
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Where: Brentwood Theatre, Veterans Affairs campus, West L.A.
When: Begins May 23; closing date to be determined
Price: $28 to $83; single tickets not yet on sale