The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

From left, top row: Rebecca Denley, Tim Homsley, Chris Carwithen. bottom row: Rachel Seeley, James David Larson, Beatriz Abella
From left, top row: Rebecca Denley, Tim Homsley, Chris Carwithen. bottom row: Rachel Seeley, James David Larson, Beatriz Abella

A zesty combination of improvisation and musical comedy, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” now playing at Oregon Cabaret Theatre, presents a surprising and endearing event steeped in laughter.

Pre-teens naturally see themselves as eccentrics, misfits and outsiders as they navigate the painful path through puberty to adulthood. The vulnerability and youthful angst of 10- to 12-year-olds are magnified with raucous results when energies are focused on the goal of winning a national spelling contest.

A winning combination of talent and exuberance keeps the show fresh and moving as the ensemble cast delivers a stirring performance. The spelling contestants are: Beatriz Abella as the driven overachieving Marcy Park; Rebecca Denley as sweet romantic Olive Ostrovsky; Rachel Seeley as the spunky politico Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre; Tim Homsley as the bully Eagle Scout Chip Tolentino; James David Larson as the home-spun Leaf Coneybear; and Chris Carwithen as the crusty asthmatic nerd William Barfée.

The hilarious hosts of the Bee are Rona Lisa Peretti, (Renee Hewitt) the perky local Realtor and former spelling champ, and the cynical and self-destructive Vice Principal Douglas Panch (John Stadelman). DaRon Lamar Williams plays the parolee Comfort Counselor Mitch Mahoney, who delivers bear hugs and juice boxes to losing contestants as they exit to a soothing chorus of, “Goodbye, Goodbye.”

Songs and energetic dance routines are cleverly woven into the dialogue. As Tolentino wanders through the audience with his “candy carrier” he sings his “Embarrassing Erection Song” which brings the evening’s rating to PG-13. Hormones kick in for the boys, but luckily not for the girls, who remain sweet, vulnerable and manageable. “I Speak Six Languages” sung by Park is a solemn reminder that children are often expected to excel at everything.

With his glasses flashing, hair waving and black leather shoes blazing Barffée sings, “It’s horrific if you’re not specific,” in a spellbinding soft-shoe as he writes words with his “Magic Foot.”

Vice Principal Panch delivers the most uproarious lines of the evening when asked for “the word in a sentence.” To “cystitis,” the inflammation of the urinary bladder, Panch comes up with, “Sally’s mother told her that it was her cystitis that made her special.” Panch forms “phylacteries,” a Jewish ritual box, into the sentence, “Billy put down that phylactery; we are Episcopalians.”

Contestants reveal their family lives as they compete, not without a bit of pathos. Ostrovsky’s mother is currently in India on a nine-month spiritual quest. Swartzandgrubenierre has two dads, which explains the length of her last name. Bear sings about his home-schooling: “I’m not that smart. My siblings have been telling me that for years. I’m not that smart. We’re schooled at home (They see who’s bright.) It breaks my heart. I’m not that smart.”

The set, a giant gymnasium designed by Craig Hudson, is functional with bleachers, desks, ladders and swivel chairs. At one point the entire stage becomes a giant kinetic sculpture as spellers swing on gymnasium ropes, spin the bleachers, and generally wreak havoc while singing “Life is random and unfair. Life is pandemonium.”

Costumes (Kerri Lea Robbins) are adorable and authentic including a genuine Eagle Scout uniform (with patches) and a parochial school dress.

Volunteer spellers, recruited from the audience each night, bring lots of opportunities for humorous ad-libs as they actually compete in the spelling bee, and audience members root for their favorite contestants.

With splendid direction and choreography by Jim Giancarlo and musical direction by Jennifer Schloming, the Tony Award-winning musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” plays at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Mondays with brunch matinees at 1 p.m. Sundays through Aug. 30 at Oregon Cabaret Theatre. For tickets and information call 488-2902.

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