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The cast of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" take center stage at this zany competition. (Courtesy Photo)

Set against the backdrop of The Abbey-the perfectly unorthodox lounge in downtown Orlando which doubles as an intimate theatre-the zany and immersive "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" was brought to life on stage through Encore! Cast Performing-Arts this past weekend.

The show follows a handful of students-with a few unsuspecting patrons recruited into the bee as well-who are competing locally for a shot at national spelling glory. The local cast proves to be wildly funny as each and every one embodies the quirks and unique traits of whichever oddball (and often outcast) child they are portraying.

Moderated by the winner of the third annual spelling bee, Rona Lisa Perretti (Amy Hughes) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Tony Whitten), the show is carried out as though the theatre audience is in fact the audience for the spelling bee. Our dynamic moderating duo provides brief snippets of information regarding each contestant's background while dutifully balancing their child-wrangling duties as the only true "adults" on stage consistently throughout the show. They are also joined on-stage by the "Official Comfort Counselor" and ex-convict Mitch Mahoney (Chris DeRoche), who hands out juice boxes to the losing students as they're escorted musically off the stage.

Through the brief student bios, the contestants will frequently break into their own monologue (usually a musical number) and dive into the deeper and darker parts of their lives that built up to their participation in the show. These introspective moments give the show an unexpected depth and poignancy that allows for a more intimate connection with the characters, bringing out the heart of the children that lies behind the competitors they are taught to be.

William Barfée (Michael Angelini) is an excellent example of a character you wouldn't expect to fall in love with, and yet find yourself rooting for until the very end. Angelini is brilliant in conveying the pure awkwardness and social ineptitude of William throughout the show, but also manages to bring such heart into the role that William's character speaks to the nerdy and introverted child living inside every one of us. His constant battle with the moderators on the pronunciation of his name ("It's Bar-FAY, not BARF-ee") and his outward disdain for his peers through most of the show is riotous and carries well without fail.

Leaf Coneybear (Ty Menard) and Olive Ostrovsky (Joy Flatz) are also characters that leave a lasting impact through their heartfelt inner-dialogue that breaks out sporadically into song and dance during their moments in the spotlight. While Flatz's character is constantly competing with her heart on her sleeve (evident with her moving ballad, "The I Love You Song"), Menard is superb as the third-alternate competitor who was never supposed to make it to the stage in the first place. Menard's portrayal of Leaf is thoughtful and hilarious with wild antics, and be sure to keep an eye on his incredibly animated reactions to nearly everything that occurs around him.

Our other three spellers are the most outwardly competitive and found in the reigning champion Chip Tolentino (David Kotary), child prodigy Marcy Park (Robin Chinn), and the young social activist Logan SchwartzandGrubenierre (Kiernan O'Connor). Their personalities are as dissimilar as you could imagine, but their self-assurance and desire to win is the common connection between the three. However, beware Boy Scout Chip Tolentino's wicked 22-mph screwball after intermission-you might just find yourself dodging candy bars as they're launched across the audience from the disgruntled speller.

While the majority of the bee is filled with subtle humor riddled with middle school jokes, don't let the middle-school humor fool you into bringing little ones into the audience. Some of the more not-so-subtle humor, such as that found in Kotary's "My Unfortunate Erection", might make for an interesting car ride home...

However, it is the depth and personality that each character exudes on stage that creates an impression that will last with the audience well after they have left the theatre behind. I could rave about this production until well past these characters' bedtimes, but rather than do that I recommend you catch the show before it closes, because at the end of the day this production is quite r-e-m-a-r-k-a-b-l-e.

'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee'

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From This Author McKenzie Lakey