THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE * Music and lyrics by William Finn * Book by Rachel Sheinkin * Conceived by Rebecca Feldman * Directed by James Lapine * Second Stage Theatre, New York City, through April 3.

Anyone who saw the hit documentary film Spellbound knows what a terrific dramatic form the spelling bee is – it’s the ultimate revenge-of-the-nerds heroic fantasy, where playground misfits and family eccentrics get to shine. And fans of William Finn, the composer of Falsettos and other fast, funny, highly verbal musicals, are aware that he’s good at writing songs for smart, awkward kids. Put the two together, and you’ve got The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, one of the smash hits of the New York theater season currently playing Off Broadway at the Second Stage and headed for a Broadway run.

Based on C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E, a 2002 play created by some of the participants here, the musical taps three fertile veins of comedy. First, there’s the motley crew of spellers with their individual nervous tics. Among them are the chubby, slobby know-it-all (Dan Fogler), the Korean over-achiever (Deborah Craig), the ego-deficient kid from the large hippie family (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), and the lisping fifth-grade rad-grrl with two gay daddies who started the Gay-Straight Alliance in her elementary school (Sarah Saltzberg). Words that show up in spelling bees are often absurdly arcane, and when contestants ask to hear them used in a sentence, it’s the perfect set-up for incongruously adult punchlines. Use “phylactery” in a sentence? “Billy, put down that phylactery, we’re Episcopalian.” Bada-boom. On top of that, four audience members are called up onstage to participate, and watching this unscripted reality-theater unfold gives the show a fun, unpredictable edge.

Surprisingly, Finn’s songs play humble-servant to the characters, supplying clever brainy-kidspeak (“Unlike idiots, we ideate”) without pulling focus from the drama. The score is almost too modest – it would be nice to have one or two breakout numbers. The closest is “Chip’s Lament” – aka “My Unfortunate Erection” – sung by the pubescent champ whose hormones interfere with his concentration. But as staged by Finn’s longtime collaborator James Lapine with his customary clarity and visual inventiveness, the show steers clear of the clichés that litter way too many musicals these days, and that’s what makes it a winner.

The Advocate, March 29, 2005