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Spellcheck: To 'Bee' or not to 'Bee' -- Tony Award-winning play next up for Paul Bunyan Playhouse

The third play of the Paul Bunyan Playhouse summer season is “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” which opens at 7:30 p.m. tonight through Sunday, but there is no Friday, Fourth of July, performance. The play also runs July 9-12. (From left) Actors Nate Chesney, Ryna London Levin, Catherine Battocletti, Zach Curtis, Katherine Tieben-Holt and (in back) Bonni Allen rehearse a scene Tuesday from the popular American play.Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI -- There is something to be said for the brutal honesty of youth.

Just what that is, we can talk about later. But for now, tickets for the hit musical comedy "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" opening tonight at 7:30 in the Historic Chief Theatre will ensure said honesty will be enjoyed aplenty in this story of six young people who learn taking home the trophy isn't everything and losing doesn't mean you are a loser.

This is a smart show, capable of drawing a picture of youthful anxiety as familiar as poodle skirts, Levis, leg warmers and yoga pants. Personal choices made by each generation in order to reflect their individual rights ... to end up looking exactly like their friends. It will serve to remind you of who you were and ask who you have become, all the while providing a multitude of reasons to laugh ... at ourselves, at them, at us all.

In "Spelling Bee," we find this group of young overachievers are no different, trying to find their own place in the world while trying to spell words almost as unique as they are. Tonight, they may discover spelling is not as important as meanings. As we watch them navigate the perilous waters of spelling bee competition, straining mightily against each other and even more importantly, against themselves, we cheer them on amid their angst as they strive for the title of champion.

An unlikely topic for such a successful play, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" certainly proves its merit as a Tony Award-winning, coming-of-age event for this sweetly funky group of brainiacs. The entertaining songs give us insight into a range of topics pertinent to the competitors, as well as those steering the awkward contestants in their quest for the title. We have past champion, current Bee hostess and realtor Rona Lisa Peretti played by Kristen Husby, along with word pronouncer, meaning giver and usage expert extraordinaire Junior High Vice Principal Douglas Panch played by Paul Reyburn, finally joined by comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney played by Max Wojtanowicz, conveniently on hand to dole out juice boxes for the "misspellers" as he readily admits hugging them may violate his parole. Realizing these adults are as needy as the children they are trying to proctor, we wonder how they have managed thus far. Yet, somehow, they manage to astound us as they brilliantly supply what is needed for success in the end.

Among the prepubescent competitors they shepherd are shyly sweet Olive Ostrovsky played by Katherine Tieben-Holt, national finalist multilingual perfectionist Marcy Park as played by Catherine Battocletti, Putnam Basin district's drifty second runner up Leaf Coneybear played by Ryan London Levin, Magna Magnet for the gifted, distinctly lisping and unusual representative Bonni Allen as Logainne Schwartzandgrubeniere, the previous year's finalist who was eliminated due to health issues, William Barfee (and that is pronounced BarFAY) as played by Zach Curtis, joined by last year's county champion, Chip Tolentino, played by Nate Chesney.

A very special part of this show's appeal is the inclusion each night of selected audience members taking part in the onstage fun during each performance. They are sure to find that, just like the other contestants, a spelling bee is the one place where they can stand out and fit in at the same time. Audiences have shown their appreciation for the Paul Bunyan Playhouse's professional live theater each and every northern Minnesota summer for more than 63 years. You can find out why by enjoying this lovely tradition of live theater with your family and friends.

Directed by Zach Curtis, with musical direction by Suzanne Reyburn, choreography by Shannon Roberg, lighting by Grant Merges, costumes by Molly Weibel, scenic design by Curtis and props and stage managed by Connor Norton, tickets for "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" are available online at or by calling the box office at (218) 751-7270. "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" runs through July 12 with a Sunday July 6 matinee at 2 p.m. This may not be a suitable production for children younger than 13. Please call the box office for more information.