Nearly 15 years have passed since the theater department at North Hennepin Community College presented its last musical. But it's making a noteworthy comeback with the first local production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."

A national touring company previously staged the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical in the Twin Cities, but North Hennepin's will be the first college theater in Minnesota to present it, according to theater director Mike Ricci.

"As soon as it was announced that the play was being released for productions across the country, I called the New York office and secured the rights immediately," he said.

Although Ricci, who arrived at the school in August, can't vouch for what caused the lull in the theater's musical history -- a mid-1990s performance of "Kiss Me Kate" appears to have been its last musical -- he chalked it up to budgetary wrinkles and not an aversion to the form. Before him, there hadn't been a full-time theater director on staff for four years, he said.

So it was up to Ricci to track down a choreographer, a music director and a small instrumental ensemble to go into the recently-dusted-off orchestra pit. But it's been worth the time and energy, he said.

" 'Spelling Bee' is clever, well-written and fun."

The production will open on April 16. Coincidentally, another musical at another area college that hasn't staged one in years -- "Cabaret" at Century College in White Bear Lake -- will open the same night.

The play focuses on the personal journeys of six awkward, overachieving adolescents whose insecurities and aspirations ooze out during an intense regional spelling bee at the fictional Putnam Valley Middle School.

"Spelling Bee's" so-called grownups -- including a "comfort counselor" who comes armed with juice boxes and words of encouragement -- are similarly off-kilter. The show, which features music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin, calls for a minimal set and stage effects and only about nine cast members.

The original production was rated R, but the college is offering separate performances for general and mature audiences.

For each performance, four audience members are randomly brought onto the stage that has been re-imagined as a school gymnasium, to be pitted against the other spellers.

"It's fascinating how spelling bees have grown and gained a place in our society," said Ricci, noting that ESPN now broadcasts a national spelling competition. "It's nice that spellers get their due."

Some of the cast members can relate. Callan Korpi, who plays Rona Lisa Peretti, an administrator with a zeal for spelling, said it helps that she had a penchant for stringing letters together herself as a youngster.

Similarly, to get into his part as the hippy Leaf Coneybear, the expressive Carter Roeske is trying to channel his 12-year-old self -- or, as he put it, regressing. Roeske, who wears a yellow crash helmet and matching kneepads as a kind of pseudo-armor connoting his character's fragility, said convincingly, "This [character] is me."

True to form, at a rehearsal Roeske sustained a minor injury while swinging on a rope Tarzan-style (during a song appropriately called "Pandemonium"). Despite the painful stunt, he's happy to be in the bee.

Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.