By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
Make yourself disposed for a facetious crepuscule.
Can you use that in a better sentence? Get ready for a warm, witty serenade to logophiles everywhere, and to the outcasts of Putnam County. Putnam County, if you haven’t been there, is somewhere in the imaginary Midwest, where bread is white, a little German is in the accent, and the sweet demeanor of farmland manners still resides. And The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is, appropriately, the first production of Broadway Rose Theatre Company’s 25th year.
What’s up in this decade-old alphabet soup of a musical comedy? Amy Jo Halliday, the Portland actress with the classic comedic timing, enters stage left as Putnam County’s real estate magnate, Rona Lisa Peretti. She loves “The Bee,” and with her beautiful soprano and jocular phrasing serves all night as its commentator and co-moderator. Her fellow moderator is Vice Principal Douglas Panch, played by Lyle Bjorn Aranson, whose body language is reminiscent of a former Soviet police junior lieutenant’s: Vice Principal Panch could use a few yoga sessions to yank the tension out of his body. He’s had a mysterious sabbatical from the Bee, but now returns as judge of the word-hounds as he also casts a flirty eye on Ms. Peretti. The pair are like an Abbott and Costello packing the heat of a 90-pound thesaurus, aided by Mitch Mahoney (Brian Demar Jones), who is fulfilling his community-service sentence by handing out juice boxes and a warm shoulder to those who flub their spellings and must leave the stage.
The air is filled with the smell of pencil shavings and worn Pee-Chee folders as everyone rises to give the Pledge of Allegiance before the battle of words begins. The night has a high-voltage electric energy, a bit of the old Borscht Belt feel, and a chorus of tunes mnemonic of Bye Bye Birdie and Grease (music and lyrics by William Finn; book by Rachel Sheinkin). Jeffrey Childs on keyboard, Mieke Bruggeman-Smith on reeds, Mitch Wilson hitting the skins as percussionist, and Dale Tolliver on cello help to charge the atmosphere with their solid playing. Brynne Oster-Bainnson’s striking costume designs serve almost like props, helping to define the motley crew competing in the Bee.
Life is pandemonium, and the eclectic panel of spelling competitors have just as colorful a life and past as Ms. Peretti and Vice Principal Panch. The spelling contestants gather in the bleachers on the school gymnasium’s high waxen floor. Alexander Salazar is Charlito “Chip” Tolentino, champion of the 24th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee: he launches onstage like a Clark Kent, geared up with every possible Boy Scout badge glowing from his chest. Leaf Coneybear (David Swadis) is a male ingenue, a future in the making, rolling around the stage and running through the theater like an impish superhero in a flowing cape and Captain America-emblazoned helmet. Marcy Park is a parochial-school girl: the plaid dress, black Mary Jane shoes, white Peter Pan collar, a Louise Brooks signature bob haircut. Audrey Voon plays Miss Park all angles cut to perfection, straight-man foil for the more eccentric in the group. Overseen by a set of quarrelsome helicopter dads, isThe exotically named Logainne “Schwarzy” SchwartzandGrubenierre (Catherine Olson) is overseen by a set of quarrelsome helicopter dads who look like they were dressed by Pee-Wee Herman’s tailor and received hair-styling tips from the young boys of the Weimar Republic. Logainne’s slight lisp gives way to elegant elocutions of a more political nature. Troy Pennington as William Morris Barfée (bar-fay; the accent is ague) comes across as a young David Foster Wallace with a chronic sinus disorder and severe allergy to peanuts. Olive Ostrovsky (Danielle Purdy) is a jersey-dressed girl with striped wool tights and running shoes, a figure painted by Beverly Cleary. Her shy posture suggests the broken home she inhabits: a depressed mother who goes off to an ashram in India on a nine-month spiritual quest, and a working-class, missing-in-action dad. Her only friend is the dictionary, which she loves to read on the toilet.
William Morris Barfée (bar-fay, the accent is ague) draws out the words with his hefty but dainty toe, a habit that gives rise to the delightful number Magic Foot, on which choreographer Dan Murphy transforms the competitors in the bleachers turn into Rockettes, alternating scissor-kicks and glides in a circle around Barfée and performing a Busby Berkley salute to the power of correct lettering.
As Olive Ostrovsky lies in wait for her father to see her shine at the Bee, she enters an imaginary world full of affirmations of love from her parents. The I Love You Song gives the slight Danielle Purdy an opportunity to belt out with the gusto of a gospel choir. And as Rona Lisa, Holliday uses her clear lilting voice throughout the evening to accent the harmonies and voices of a strong singing cast. Brian Demar Jones, in a variety of roles, reveals a diverse palette, serving up some Sam Cooke gospel, the brassiness of Broadway, and the gentle effect of a small choir.
As the Bee gets busy and the final rounds begin to cut the wheat from the chaff, director Annie Kaiser slows down the pacing to a Sam Peckinpah jolt that turns the audience on its head with laughter as the accented idiosyncrasies of each person in the Bee are acted out frame by frame.
Who wins? Who loses? We’re not gong to spell that out. But you will end your night with a song – and a lexicon – in your heart.
The 25th Annual County Putnam County Spelling Bee continues through February 28 at the Broadway Rose New Stage in Tigard. Ticket and schedule information are here.