Peter Rothstein first noticed the youth movement a year ago, when Theater Latté Da held general auditions. He was so impressed by the young talent he saw that he began talking with his creative staff about programming the 2011-12 year with shows centered on fresh faces.

To that end, Latté Da opens the season this weekend at the Ordway Center's McKnight Theatre with "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," a sassy little musical set within a high school spelling contest. Six of the nine cast members are under age 27. Indeed, veteran Tod Petersen is the only actor with whom Rothstein has worked before on a Latté Da production.

"We intentionally chose these shows for younger actors," said Rothstein, who will direct "Spring Awakening" for Latté Da next spring.

Derek Prestly is one of them. A 2010 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Prestly has come back to plant his flag in the Twin Cities theater landscape. He trained at Stages Theatre and Youth Performance Company and got a youth role in Chanhassen's 2002 production of "Music Man." Since finishing college, Prestly has worked in two roles for Minneapolis Musical Theatre and now moves on to "Spelling Bee."

"I'm more excited than nervous," Prestly said. "I feel like the training I got at Stevens Point really prepared me for this, and I'm ahead of the game."

"Spelling Bee" reunites Prestly with Cat Brindisi, another castmate from "Music Man." In the ensuing nine years, Brindisi has worked often on the Chanhassen stage -- where her father is artistic director and her mother is a frequent actor. She then went into the musical theater program at the University of Minnesota Duluth, graduating last year.

Brindisi is quite comfortable with the professional stage after growing up at Chanhassen, and Rothstein calls her "a special performer." But "Spelling Bee" marks an important step out on her own.

"The biggest difference is that this is the first time I don't have to prove anything," Brindisi said. "I've always kind of felt like I had to live up to something, being the director's daughter, but getting this gig tells me I can do this on my own."

All about character

"Spelling Bee" encourages localization. Rothstein said Latté Da's production will present the contest as "The Seven-County Spelling Bee."

The show, with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin, took critics and audiences in New York by surprise.

Mary Fox, who graduated from UMD in 2005, saw the show there and wanted to audition for Latté Da, even though she's not much of a musical theater actor.

"I knew it was really character-driven, and I remember seeing it and thinking, 'This is such a great musical because it's not traditional,'" she said.

Rothstein also loved the Broadway production in the 650-seat Circle in the Square Theatre. But he felt the rich quirkiness evaporated when "Spelling Bee" played larger venues, such as the State Theatre in Minneapolis, on a national tour.

"You couldn't see the faces, and it rarely landed with the audience," he said, adding that he prefers the dimensions of the 300-seat McKnight.

In fact, in addition to the desire to serve youth, Rothstein said he moved "Spelling Bee" to the front of his "to-do list" because of uncertainty about the McKnight's future. Plans call for it to be remodeled into a permanent home for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Rothstein and choreographer Michael Matthew Ferrell staged "Spelling Bee" in the teen program at Children's Theatre Company three years ago, so they have pretty strong concepts in place. They have had to adjust, however, from 22 cast members to nine -- "and make it seem like a cast of 40 for the production numbers," Ferrell said.

One of the better-known songs in the show, for example, is "Magic Foot," in which one contestant works out a word by dancing along and spelling out letters with his foot. To Ferrell, that says "Busby Berkeley."

Opportunity knocks

Doing this show, out on her own, has given Brindisi confidence. After "Spelling Bee," she is headed to New York. Prestly wants to stay here, for now.

"I look at someone like Tod [Petersen], who has been so successful in this community," Prestly said. "I kind of want to start a theater company eventually. I know there is one sprouting up every couple of weeks but I have a few friends and we've talked about it. If you get consistent work, you can make a living."

Ferrell and Rothstein feel there are greater opportunities in Twin Cities musical theater than ever before. Chanhassen's cast for "Hairspray," for instance, is noticeably younger. Latté Da follows "Spelling Bee" with "Beautiful Thing," a show about youthful love set in Britain. For "Spring Awakening," Rothstein said he intends to cast many University of Minnesota students.

"They will either leave the Twin Cities or leave theater if they don't have work," he said.