Chelsea Baker, Jackie Nguyen and Seth Salsbury (from left) compete in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at the Newport Theatre Arts Center. (Photo by RON YEE / June 3, 2011)

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" has been around the local block a few times, but its current incarnation at the Newport Theatre Arts Center is as fully realized a production as you're likely to encounter.

Superbly directed and choreographed by Kari Hayter, this "Bee" should generate a lot of buzz. It's a wildly comical musical with just enough heartfelt corn to formulate a satisfying repast, not to mention a cast of superior performers who gleefully push the envelope with outlandish characterizations.

Created by Rachel Sheinkin (book) and William Finn (music and lyrics) from an original concept by Rebecca Feldman, this "Bee" could be subtitled "Revenge of the Nerds" if that title hadn't already been claimed. If this show were real, high rollers at Orange County's Scrabble clubs would be shaking in their boots.

These kids can spell just about anything, but one by one they drop by the wayside until one emerges victorious. But it's getting to that point that's more than half the fun as these geeks, nerds and weirdos strut their considerable stuff.

There's the defending champion, Chip Tolentino (Troy Iwata), whose bid for a repeat is thwarted by an embarrassing physical condition (brought on by a cute girl in the audience). There's Marcy Park (Jackie Nguyen), the prototype of the overachieving Asian student. And there's Leaf Coneybear (Seth Salsbury), who conjures himself into a trance to discern the correct spellings.

Two competitors take the "Bee" completely over the top in the realm of farcical comedy. There's the lisping lass with the burdensome moniker of Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre a combination of her two fathers' names (Chelsea Baldree). And there's William Barfee (Maxwel Corpuz), an insular goofball who spells out the word with his foot before offering it to the judge. "It's pronounced 'Bar-fay,' " he insists at every turn.

With all these nut jobs in evidence, the presence of a completely normal, lovely young lady is a revelation. That would be Olive (Amy Ganser), who quite resembles an Alice fresh from Wonderland and who charms both the judges and her fellow contestants. She's rational enough, but her mother is off looking for the meaning of life in India.

The kids, however, aren't the only standouts. Erin McNally excels as the bee's director, a former champion (third year) and a superlative singer. Jason Oles is terrific as the judge, a vice principal with image issues ("They won't let me be principal"), while Miguel Cardenas strongly interprets the "enforcer," who escorts the losers out the back door.

(A personal note: Olive and Barfee connect by anagramming each other's names, and since I'm an avid Scrabble player, I observed on first meeting my lady love, Jurine, that her name anagrammed to "injure." So that scene seemed quite normal.)

High-energy musical direction from Bobby Nafarrete combines with the starkly realistic gymnasium setting by Matt Scarpino to create an atmospheric delight. You may even get to compete — three volunteers are plucked from the audience at each performance.

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is one of the funniest shows you'll see all year. It's letter-perfect at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

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In other local theater, the Newport Beach Repertory Theater will present "An Evening of Theater" at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Carroll Beek Community Center, 115 Agate Ave., Balboa Island.

On the program will be readers' theater excerpts from several shows, including "The Hobbit," "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and "Pippi Longstocking." Tickets, at $15 and $12, may be ordered by calling (949) 633-1580.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

Where: Newport Theatre Arts Center 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, and 2 p.m. only on last Saturday of production run, until June 26

Cost: $20

Call: (949) 631-0288