Adolescents bursting with fear of academic failure, sexual longing and near-operatic senses of self-drama have proven particularly fruitful for Griffin Theatre in the past two years, thanks to Jonathan Berry's productions of "Spring Awakening" and "Punk Rock." But though no one would mistake William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's sparkling 2005 Broadway musical "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" for either of those dark rides, director Scott Weinstein's staging brings a great deal of nuance and heart to this popular piece. For those seeking an alternative to the glut of holiday fare about to hit the local boards, the show hits a sweet spot for adults and older kids alike. For anyone who remembers the pangs of overachieving youth, it may also gently probe old scar tissue.
True, it helped that, on opening night, one of the guest spelling bee contestants from the audience was the effervescent Ike Holter, creator of last year's smash for the Inconvenience about the Stonewall riots, "Hit the Wall." But Weinstein's cast is more than up to the task of playing hyperintelligent kids without turning them into cloying nerd cartoons. The show's roots — it started out as the improvisational play "C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E," created by Rebecca Feldman, and features additional material by Jay Reiss along with Finn's score and Sheinkin's book — allows for the kind of playfulness rooted in truthfulness that marks the best improvisation. The sprightly and sly banter of judges Rona Lisa Peretti (Laura McClain), a former spelling champ, and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Andy Cameron) reminded me of Christopher Guest's film "Best in Show," which also follows a group of dedicated obsessives bent on conquest.
And it sounds pretty darn good too. Music director Matt Deitchman's four-piece band is tucked away behind Joe Schermoly's gymnasium bleacher set, adding to the sense of verisimilitude and keeping the clear voices of the nine-member cast front and center with minimum fuss. Like "Spring Awakening," the songs function as interior monologues for the kids as they try to spell out their feelings — about themselves, their peers and their parents — as accurately as they do the 50-cent words with which they are challenged. As the song "Pandemonium" explains, "Life is random and unfair. That's the reason we despair."
Daniel Desmarias' Leaf Coneybear (presumably a riff on the hippie-showbiz Phoenix clan) shows off all the insecurity and desperate accommodation of the perpetually overlooked kid in a family of creative spirits. Landree Fleming's lisping Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre tries to walk a tightrope between the conflicting parenting styles of the gay dads to whom she owes her hybrid surname. Charlotte Mae Ellison's Olive Ostrovsky has the opposite problem — she can't get her parents to even show up.
In one of the simplest and most affecting moments, Rochelle Therrien's Marcy Park, the superachiever among superachievers, responds to the judges' observation that "Miss Park is all business" with a quiet but pointed rejoinder of "I am not." Even annoying William Barfée, he of the insisted-upon acute accent in his surname and the "rare mucus-membrane disorder," feels like a fully dimensional creation in Conor McCahill's prickly but vulnerable performance.
These kids may require definitions to find the right spelling, but as they grow beyond the definitions imposed upon them by the grown-ups, we start rooting for them. In this lighthearted but wise "Spelling Bee," the notion that everybody should get a trophy makes perfect sense.
When: Through Dec. 15
Where: Theater Wit, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Running time: 1 hour and 50 minutes
Tickets: $36 at 773-975-8150 or griffintheatre.com