The cast of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." The zany comedy opens Friday at the Temple of Music and Art. It benefits Literacy Volunteers of Tucson. CHRIS DRISCOLL / ARIZONA ONSTAGE

A loner with an uncontrollable mucus problem, a home-schooled kid with a very short attention span, and a stereotypical overachiever who can speak six languages.

These are only a few of the outlandish characters competing in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."

Arizona Onstage Productions is mounting this Tony Award-winning musical that focuses on six middle-school characters and their fight to become the ultimate spelling bee champion. Along the way they learn that winning isn't everything.

"These six kids are so different and dynamic, each having their own little niche," said Kevin Johnson, Arizona Onstage Productions artistic director.

Directed by Rob Russo Jr. and featuring music by William Finn, this zany comedy has an ensemble cast and an array of songs. Finn has gained fame for his complex music and story-telling tunes.

"This will be the fourth William Finn show that we have produced," Johnson said. "We started with 'Falsettoland,' then went to 'A New Brain,' and then we went to 'Elegies,' which won the 2006 Daily Star MAC Award for Best Musical."

In this one, adults take the roles of the middle schoolers riddled with every malady middle schoolers suffer, such as loneliness, gawkiness and geekiness.

"Quite often when adults play children's roles it is completely hokey and unbelievable, but 'Spelling Bee' has got a lot of heart, and that is what attracted me to it," Johnson said.

Audience participation is key. Just as in the Broadway production, four volunteers at each show will be asked to join the contest, creating a sense of variety and improv in every performance.

"There are a lot of surprises for the participants, and that adds a whole new layer of excitement for the audience," Russo said. "They will be watching them as well as the actors."

And they will feel like they are sitting in a school gym as the action swirls around them.

"We are actually turning the entire room into a school gymnasium with the ropes and the curtains and the basketball and the signage," Russo said. "So when you walk in, you are going to feel like you are part of it."

Assisting the determined participants are eccentric spelling bee hosts Rona Lisa Perretti and Douglas Panch. There's also a comfort counselor, Mitch Mahoney, available to contestants who become disqualified.

"There are three adults that are there to kind of anchor the show," Russo said, "but as it unfolds you start to discover that they are just as messed up as the kids."

Unlike most plays, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" has wiggle room to improvise. So don't be surprised if some of Arizona's current politics creep into the play.

"It is very much customized to this exact region," Johnson said. "As far as local references, I couldn't think of a more interesting state in the United States right now to find them."

"What I think is really interesting about this show is that it is the characters that bring it to life," said Arizona Onstage Productions veteran Brian Levario, who plays Chip Tolentino. "To be part of such a character-driven piece makes me really excited."

Nick Gallardo, who initially auditioned to play Chip, was tapped for the role of Leaf Coneybear.

"I feel that I am a lucky guy in this because Coneybear has a lot of laughs," Gallardo said. "He is just this space-case kid who zips in and out of different ventures, and I think he is a really powerful character."

According to Johnson, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is the most-produced show in the world right now.

"It has a lot of comedy with music that is really fun, edgy and catchy," Russo said. "I find myself waking up in the morning and having the songs playing over and over and over again in my head."

Meet the contestants

Chip Tolentino: The reigning spelling bee champ, Chip is a highly decorated Boy Scout who is a little more athletic and sociable than the other bee participants. Feeling like he is in his element, he is eager to not only win the bee, but to make friends. The highly competitive Chip is confident and likable.

Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere: The youngest of all the spellers, Logainne is a little awkward. With a noticeable lisp and a nervous habit of holding her breath, her two fathers kept her busy with regular study drills. Being overly stimulated by political and social issues as a child has caused her to be a bit paranoid and neurotic.

Leaf Coneybear: Entering the bee as a second alternate for his region, Leaf is delightfully quirky and suffers from severe attention-deficit disorder. He is one of many children and often made fun of by his siblings for being dumb. Leaf is at the bee to have a good time and, hopefully, show off some of his homemade clothing.

William Barfee: With a mucous membrane disorder, Barfee (pronounced Bar-fay) is a gruff but gentle giant determined to win the bee. Last year, he was forced to forfeit after an unfortunate peanut-allergy incident. Known for his unique method of spelling out words with his foot, Barfee returns more focused than ever, seeking vindication for last year's elimination. His defensive attitude and somewhat gross facade may or may not push the other spellers away.

Marcy Park: With the ability to speak six languages, Marcy is your typical overachiever. She is a tough individual who puts more pressure on herself than anyone else. However, she is slowly learning that being good at everything is more of a curse than a blessing.

Olive Ostrovsky: As a newcomer to the bee, Olive is a quiet and humble young girl who is excited at the possibility of being a champion. Growing up with often-absent parents, she turned to reading and writing for comfort, developing a strange fascination with the dictionary. Olive is a good speller but is a little bit distracted at the bee, looking for her father in the audience.

If you go

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."

• Playwright: Music by William Finn; book by Rachel Sheinkin

• Director/choreographer: Rob Russo Jr.

• Presented by: Arizona Onstage Productions.

• When: Preview 7:30 p.m. Thursday; opens 7:30 p.m. next Friday. Continues through Aug. 29.

• Where: Temple of Music and Art, Cabaret Space, 330 S. Scott Ave.

• Tickets: $32.50 general, with discounts available. It's $20 per ticket for the preview.

• Reservations/information: 1-800-838-3006, www.brownpapertickets.com or www.arizonaonstage.org

• Cast: Walter Belcher, Nicholas Gallardo, Jennifer Hijazi, Ellie Jepperson, Michelle Leon, Brian Levario, Steve McKee, Jacinda Rose Swinehart and Daniel Tenney.

• Running time: 95 minutes, with no intermission

• Et cetera: Benefits Literacy Volunteers of Tucson.

Erica Coleman is a University of Arizona student who is apprenticing at the Star. Contact her at 573-4128 or at starapprentice@azstarnet.com