The musical, which has additional performances this week, tells the life stories of six stereotypical, overachieving spellers in the fictional Putnam County Spelling Bee. Apart from their common goal of winning - thereby averting a less-than-comforting encounter with the "comfort counselor," a parolee doing community service - the characters are tied by their struggles emerging into adolescence.
But the unscripted scenes involving audience volunteers grabbed notable applause and laughter on Friday.
Four audience participants, ranging in age from 13 to 75, were asked to spell words including cow and friggatriskaidekaphobia (fear of Friday the 13th), and laughed off jokes and commentary from the two moderators.
"It's a little like standup comedy," Dalio said.
Take for example Speller No. 525,600: retired librarian Kuna Yankell, 75, of Moorestown. Moderators described Yankell as having memorized the Dewey Decimal System backward, being a trendsetter for Madonna and Cher, and having been crowned prom queen so many times that her high school had to set a limit.
Kristen Burke, 26, of Philadelphia, who plays moderator Rona Lisa Perretti, said most participants "are pretty good sports about" the jokes made at their expense.
"I'll admit, I wrote down a couple of cultural references that I kind of tried out during rehearsal and seemed to really hit," said Burke, who works in human resources at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre in addition to acting. "Other than that, it's really just glancing over and seeing what they look like, what they wear, what they might be interested in, the opposite of what they might be interested in, and kind of coming up with it on the spot."
The show's actors sing and dance around the audience-contestants and shift them around the stage, leaving them to participate to the best of their abilities.
"I didn't know whether you were supposed to, or to just sit there," Yankell said, adding that she loved the experience. "It's a fun play."
Yankell had seen productions of the show twice before but had never participated.
Other audience participants seemed to agree, though Kevin Curtin, a 33-year-old pharmacist from Philadelphia, said with a laugh that perhaps next time, he'd "let someone else go."
Yankell was the last of the audience contestants to misspell a word, being "eliminated" just before intermission.
Participants volunteered through a short survey and brief interview with Dalio before the show. To ensure each performance is unique, Dalio said he would look to pick a diverse group each night.
"We want someone who literally has no idea what's going on," said Dalio, who has had lead roles in a national tour of Beauty and the Beast and coordinates musical theater studies at New Jersey City University. "That's been an exciting challenge for a cast: figuring out to help these people [move] along in the simplest way possible and not lose sight of what's actually going on in the show."
The show was advertised for a 12-and-older crowd, and its interactivity made it a unique pick for MoorArts, a nonprofit that supports arts in Moorestown schools and in the community. It was also one of the few small-cast shows the group has produced.
Organization president Georgean Wardzinski said MoorArts had done safer, better-known shows in the past, including Grease and Hairspray. The nonprofit's mission helped make this type of show possible.
"If you're a theater company [that has] bricks-and-mortar and have to pay the bills, you can't necessarily do shows that you might not bring in a decent-size audience," Wardzinsky said. "Because we are an arts organization, we feel an obligation not to just do a show to bring in money, [but] to expose people to a different type of theater."
MoorArts helped offset the decrease in seating by offering the show seven times instead of its usual six.
The organization, on paper known as Moorestown Arts Advocacy Council, began in 1991, when a group of parents fought against a potential cut in academic funding for arts, Wardzinsky said.
Today, the group offers scholarships for Moorestown High School students pursuing the arts, as well as grants for teachers conducting art-related projects.
The audience-inclusive show provided a different experience for actors involved, too, cast members said.
Burke said it was her first show that incorporated both a script and improv. The spontaneity is new for many of the actors.
"It's a little scary knowing that the people will be right next to me in my face and that I can't break character at all, and knowing that every night is different," Olivia Manlove, 16, of Haddon Heights, who plays Olive Ostrovsky, said at the last rehearsal before opening night. "You don't know what they're going to do."
Remaining performances of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" are scheduled for Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. For information, call 856-778-6600, Ext. 28033, or go to moorarts.org.
Contact Angelo Fichera at 856-779-3814, email@example.com or on Twitter @AJFichera.