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Review: OCT's 'Bee' casts a charming spell on its audience

We've all caught ESPN's meager scrap thrown to academics, the semifinals of the National Spelling Bee, as we surfed through dozens of channels in vain for something to watch.

Excruciating, wasn't it?

So why would you want to plunk down $32 to watch a musical about a contest in which only the smart ones with no other redeeming qualities participate?

Because "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," which opened Friday at Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland, is funny. And charming. And full of heart.

And, like any competition in which the stakes are high, you can't wait to see who wins.

Director/choreographer Jim Giancarlo, OCT's artistic director, brings out the humanity in each of the contestants even as we laugh at their idiosyncrasies.

There's Marcy Park (Beatriz Abella), who can speak six languages and say "hello" in seven more; wallflower Olive Ostrovsky (Rebecca Denley), who never met an anagram she didn't like; the hormone-fueled Chip Tolentino (Tim Homsley), whose unfortunate timing of a daydream costs him the bee; Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Rachel Seeley), the girl with braided ponytails and two dads who just wants America to love her.

All the contestants are students from Southern Oregon University. Their program bios indicate at least some are freshmen apparently without much previous acting experience. Giancarlo masterfully pulls out the best in them, developing a cast that not only can act and sing but weave tight harmonies and hit the comedic overtones right on cue.

Strongest among them is Chris Carwithen, who plays William Barfée ("BAR-FAY," he bellows as he takes his turn, correcting the vice principal — again). William is the one with a "mucus membrane disorder" and is the most flamboyant of the spellers, who all have their own tricks for "seeing" the words before they start committing themselves to the letters. William's method is by "magic foot," which leads to a hilarious song by the same name that ends in nothing less than a Broadway finish with the entire cast.

James David Larson as Leaf Coneybear is another favorite as he plays the clueless skater dude with a cape and a finger puppet he uses to great effect. He's "not that smart," he sings, but he snaps into a trance every time he must spell a word, which always seems to be some type of South American rodent he's never heard of.

Anchoring the students are veteran cast members John Stadelman as the vice principal, whose use of the words in a sentence becomes as ridiculous as the words themselves ("Phylactery: Millie, put down that phylactery! We are Episcopalians!"); Renée Hewitt as the perky and optimistic organizer Rona Lisa Peretti, a former Putnam County Spelling Bee champion; and DaRon Lamar Williams as the "comfort counselor," the brooding convict who gives the losers a hug and a juice pouch and helps them off the stage as part of his community service.

Sings the cast to the losers,

"Goodbye,

"You were good but not good enough,

"Please don't ask why,

"Just say goodbye."

Sparkling one-liners abound in "Spelling Bee," and some of the best are directed at audience members who agree to become contestants on stage. When a young woman is called, Rona Lisa announces, in her oh-so-perky voice, she's a "child prodigy who's writing an opera in Braille." When an elderly gentleman takes his turn at the microphone, Rona Lisa says he "looks forward to the day he gets his own room."

Another high point of "Spelling Bee" is "Life is Pandemonium," a well-choreographed melee of sound and movement as the spellers rebel against some contestants getting all the "easy" words.

"Putnam County Spelling Bee," conceived by Rebecca Feldman and written by Rachel Sheinkin with music and lyrics by William Finn, is a Tony-award winner, and it's easy to see why. We know these kids. We grew up with Miss Perfect, Mr. Clueless, the nerd who's always blowing his nose. And if we're really honest, we see ourselves in them, too.

Cathy Noah is city editor of the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 776-4473 or at cnoah@mailtribune.com.