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Mobile technologies such as free dictionary and dictation apps, spell check and autocorrect may have diminished the importance of our youth's ability to spell, but that orthographic skill is the unlikely subject of a 2005 Broadway musical by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin now playing to hysterical audiences at the 150-seat Brisbane Arts Theatre.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (What a mouthful for a title of a musical!) revolves around a group of adolescent misfits competing to be the best speller in a remote American county for a $200 savings bond sponsored by the local optometrists. The original Broadway production at Circle in the Square won two Tony Awards (Best Book and Best Featured Actor). In Australia, the MTC/STC mounting of 2006-7 starred Marina Prior, David Campbell, Lisa McCune, Bert Labonte and Magda Szubanski (in a cross-gender portrayal of an anti-social boy who breathes strenuously through one nostril and spells effortlessly with his Magic Foot).

Apart from the nasally challenged but pedally gifted William Barfée (pronounced "Bar-FAY" with an accent aigu) - played uproariously here by Alex Watson - the ensemble of competitive spellers also include Leaf Coneybear (Isaac Tibbs), a homeschooler who goes into a trance to spell difficult words (I'm Not That Smart); Olive Ostrovsky (Jessica Potts), a neglected child who befriends her lexicon while her absent parents are working late or seeking spiritual enlightenment (My Friend, the Dictionary); Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Samantha Sherrin), the youngest political speller who, like Rachel Berry in Glee, is raised by two pushy gay dads (Woe Is Me); Marcy Park (Liv Wilson), a multilingual overachiever (I Speak Six Languages); and Chip Tolentino (Jarrad Lindsay), last year's champion who will lose his title this year due to an involuntary pubescent reaction (My Unfortunate Erection). As the show's webpage ( aptly puts it, life is pandemonium for these "quirky, yet charming, outsiders", and "the spelling bee is the one place they can stand out and fit in at the same time". To spice up the competition, they are joined on stage by members of the audience who are asked to spell increasingly tricky words starting from "cow", "Mexican", "zuzu" and "apoop".

The teenage contestants are supervised by three adult participants: the moderator, Rona Lisa Peretti (Kelsie McDonald) who is Putnam County's top realtor and former spelling bee champion (My Favorite Moment of the Bee); Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Trent Richards) who returns as a judge after a five-year hiatus because last year's announcer has contracted Ebola (The Spelling Rules); and Mitch Mahoney (Stephen Smith), an ex-con who fulfils his community service by grudgingly offering each eliminated speller a juice box and a hug (Prayer of the Comfort Counselor).

The mostly effective and cheerful score by Finn (Falsettos, A New Brain, Elegies) was nominated for a Tony Award (which went to Adam Guettel's The Light in the Piazza that season). The young cast at Brisbane Arts Theatre sang competently to a five-piece band under the musical direction of Samara Marinelli. Sheinkin's libretto, which garnered a Tony, is fast-faced and filled with gags, punch-lines and hilarious example sentences.

Capably directed by Katherine Alpert, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues on Brisbane Arts Theatre's main stage at 210 Petrie Terrace until 18 April.

Photo Credit: Brisbane Arts Theatre

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