Ants. Wolves. People.
Whether they have six legs, four legs or two, social creatures find strength and productivity working together, even if individuals may get uncomfortable trying to figure out where they fit in. The uncomfortable search for belonging courses through "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," William Finn's 2005 musical about idiosyncratic young spellers who somehow pull it together to form a community.
The 90-minute one-act opens this weekend at Artistry theater in Bloomington, staged by Tyler Michaels King, who is best known for such roles such as Ariel in "The Tempest" and Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," both at the Guthrie Theater, as well as Peter Pan at the Children's Theatre and the Emcee in "Cabaret" at Theater Latté Da.
"At a time when we're all trying to figure out who we are and where we belong, we're watching these kids do the same onstage," Michaels King said. "It's joy-filled with a ton of heart."
"Spelling Bee" is the last of the shows that Artistry postponed after encountering existential fiscal difficulties last season. For the company, it's a sort of comic resurrection, even if they have to introduce the show to audiences.
"We're finding that people don't know 'Spelling Bee' all that well, even though it won two Tonys," said executive artistic director Kelli Foster Warder. "It's sweet and funny and we want everyone to see Tyler's work."
Michaels King, who also has a background in improv and is the founder of Trademark Theater, has tweaked Rachel Sheinkin's script. The action is now set in 2023. Words like "jihad" don't have the same resonance, he said. Instead, people now talk about "insurrection," "inflation" and "streaming."
He also has updated some characters, including Mitch, the ex-con who's doing his community service as a comfort counselor. The role is now gender queer and is played by Wariboko Semenitari, a 2022 graduate of the Guthrie Theater/University of Minnesota BFA program.
The cast also includes comedy ace Tom Reed, best known for his work with the Brave New Workshop, and veteran actor Tod Petersen, who depicts Vice Principal Douglas Panch, the bee's official pronouncer.
"Yes, I put the vice in principal," Petersen quipped. "He's more immature than the kids, I'm afraid."
In the show, Panch wrangles the volunteer spellers who're pulled from the audience. He also pines for moderator Miss Rona Lisa Peretti, but his love is unrequited. Petersen played the same role a dozen years ago at Latté Da when he was at a much different phase in his life.
"I had just fallen in love with my husband after being single for 14 years," he said. "And there I was, playing a guy seeking a connection, a partner. I don't think Panch's desires were that noble."
Now that he's in a different place, does he see the character differently? Sort of.
"His last line is that he was grateful for the opportunity to experience love, even though the line before that is she took a restraining order out on him," Petersen said. "His definition of love is a little screwy."
Artistry has assembled a creative team that includes scenic designer Sarah Bahr, who is using design to evoke memory. Her scenography is reminiscent of a high school gym.
"I'm hoping to transport all the audience members back to that place where they were, to trigger smells as they enter the theater," Bahr said.
Ray Berg, who is directing the music, was spelling bee champ in sixth grade while growing up in Montevideo, Minn. He said that musically, he's trying to make the "Spelling Bee" "a kids' playhouse."
"There's a tremendous amount of quirkiness in the lyrics and music," Berg said. "The thing that's so powerful about this show is that you see these extended juvenile characters, but you also recognize yourself and the kids you grew up with, like the character whose best friend is the dictionary."
"It's geeky and nerdy and uncomfortable in a lovable way," Berg continued.
For Michaels King, returning to the south metro venue has a special poignancy. He got his start there playing Snoopy in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" and simple cowboy Will Parker in "Oklahoma."
"To be coming back here and directing a new class of theater performers is a real gift," he said.
'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee'
By: Composer and lyricist William Finn and bookwriter Rachel Sheinkin. Directed by Tyler Michaels King.
Where: Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 W. Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Oct. 29.
Tickets: $26-$56. 952-563-8575 or artistrymn.org.
Protocol: Masks optional except for a mask-required performance Oct. 22.