Spell endearing. How about exuberant, or aplomb? Can I use those words in a sentence? Sure:
With great aplomb, Bristol Riverside Theatre has kicked off its 31st season with an exuberant and endearing production of the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
The title tells the plot. Rachel Sheinkin's book depicts six students and a few hapless audience members competing in the county spelling championships to determine who will represent the district at the national level. Vice principal Douglas Panch (played with terrific deadpan by Robert Smythe) enunciates each word and its usage, with color commentary from former champion Rona Lisa Perretti (Kathryn McCreary), who calls down each student with fun facts and sometimes subtle digs at their off-bee personalities.
William Finn's songs sometimes narrate the action but mostly detail the inner lives and personal struggles of the contestants. Verses and backstories recall those Bob Costas pre-Olympic interviews with tales of "I slept in my car for five years," here brought down to the level of childhood tribulation.
Local runner-up and late-substitute Leaf Coneybear (T.J. Wagner) renders a funny, nasal number about his family's deriding him for not being all that smart. The politically hyperaware Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (Brooke Wetterhahn) quietly navigates the high expectations of her two dads (one tells her "God hates a loser!") while dodging the mean taunts of schoolyard bullies.
Sheinkin's book fleshes out winning backstories, and this capable cast balances the smart-aleck talent of its characters with the self-doubt lingering in any child. Leigha Kato as Marcy Park wows in a number about tiger-daughter rebellion, and the popular jock Chip (Will Carlyon) layers his confidence with tender embarrassment over an unwanted tumescence. Phebe Taylor (as Olive) and Joshua Morgan (as William Barfee) are charming as they quietly develop affections that stem from odd, lonely childhoods.
Amy Kaissar's direction turns the battle of wordmongers into a three-ring circus, aided by Ryan O'Gara's dazzling lighting (illuminated steps give it a game-show feel) and Jason Simms' gymnasium set. Over the course of 100 minutes, the number of contestants whittles down to two, and the emotional stakes, though small, resonate with urgency. It's not so much a spelling contest as a lesson in how to feel young and hopeful and enchanted again.
Runs through Oct. 15 at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St, Bristol.