The pressure to succeed teams up with a bundle of adolescent angst and meets within the confines of an antiseptic middle school gym. But don’t worry — this is a comedy.
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” runs through the month of April at theater at Redmond Town Center, and the Tony-winning musical finds the humor and the heart in the ambitions of six kids hoping to win their county spelling bee.
Each one has his or her own share of neuroses — which the musical finds great delight in — but the show is equally affectionate toward its characters’ foibles.
“These characters are rich with vulnerability,” said Dan Posluns, who plays the slightly unstable Vice Principal Douglas Panch. “It’s a comical show, but no one is cartoony.”
Written by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin, “Spelling Bee” has origins in improv comedy, and that air of unpredictability remains a key element.
“Improv and musicals don’t always go together,” said director David Hunter Koch. “It keeps actors on their toes; it keeps everyone on their toes.”
Some audience members will be more on their toes than others — at each performance, four audience members are selected beforehand to join the actors on stage as guest spellers. Acting experience isn’t necessary, but a willingness to take a stab at spelling words like “hasenpfeffer” is.
The presence of guest spellers and bits of ad-libbed dialogue that make their way into the show ensure that each performance is different, and that can mean a great deal of excitement for the actors.
“I like the wild uncertainty every night,” said Vanessa Miller, who plays upbeat moderator and former spelling bee champ Rona Lisa Peretti. “It’s very exciting for me. It’s also a little scary.”
Beneath the shades of improv is a musical that is written very smartly and provides a solid foundation for the actors, Koch said. He acted in a production of Finn’s “March of the Falsettos” at ACT Theatre in Seattle and said when he first heard “Spelling Bee,” he thought it was “just glorious.”
Koch, who’s directed shows in Seattle and across the country for 15 years, said he was drawn to SecondStory because of the collaborative nature of the theater, where everyone is helping to do a little of everything.
“This is kind of guerilla theater,” Koch said. “Everyone needs to pitch in. When I saw (executive director) Mark (Chenovick), it reminded me of those years I put in. I had to help.”
Indeed, before Thursday’s dress rehearsal, Chenovick could be seen darting all over the theater, wiping the floors and storing props away. That afternoon had also just seen the completion of construction of a small stage in the lobby, where audiences can have refreshments and listen to actors perform some numbers after the main show.
For Koch, working at SecondStory has been an honor and a reminder of what theater is truly about, he said.
“It’s brought me back to the true idea of a great working ensemble,” he said.
“Spelling Bee” is on stage through April 30, with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. April 10 and 17. A special “adults only” performance, where the show’s off-color sensibilities are kicked up a notch, will stage at 10 p.m. April 16. General admission tickets are $27 and can be purchased at the box office or at SecondStory’s website.