The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee' is hilarious, well-performed musical

Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre has always presented a variety of plays and musicals, but in these hard times, the company is staging a season of all comedies. Call it "City Rep's Stimulus Plan for the City, or Brother, Can You Spare another 10 Million?" The Reppers aim to stimulate the funny bone, anyway; the rest of the anatomy, they'll leave to others.


About as good a vehicle as any to lead this comedic caravan is that musical with the 70-cent title, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" by William Finn, a composer/lyricist who has been unjustly neglected by city theater companies. Rachel Sheinkin wrote the piquantly humorous book.

City Rep continues its admirable practice of producing shows in conjunction with metro-area colleges "? in this production, the University of Central Oklahoma's musical-theater department.

Although the "Spelling Bee" spellers are in tweenhood, they are played by adult actors, a conceit that is highly effective. The vicissitudes of preadolescence "? with its insecurities, overcomplications and allergies "? are best played by actors who have been through and survived them.

The show is set in the Putnam Valley Junior High Cafetorium, where the eponymous spelling bee takes place. Rona Lisa Perretti (Renee Anderson) and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Michael Jones) introduce the spellers, who range from Leaf Coneybear (Matthew Bergman), a free-spirited product of hippie parents; to Marcy Park (Erin Clemons), a parochial-school wunderkind whose overachieving gets a little weird, if not unhuman. But you will know a child just like Marcy.

Then you have Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Angela Lansdown), whose last name is an amalgamation of those of her two dads; Dan Schwartz (Lance J. Overdorff); and Carl Grubenierre (Brandt Sterling), the conniving stage mother in the show.

Justin Larman is terrific as the four-eyed science geek William Barfee ("It's pronounced "bar-FAY!"). Nobody likes William, but don't worry "? this subversive wiseacre can take care of himself.

Another drop in this sea of angst is Olive Ostrovsky (sweetly played by the delightful Haley Jane Pierce). One of Olive's words, "chimerical," inspires "The I Love You Song," a poignant ballad about her dysfunctional family. It's heartrending, and Pierce, Erin Stockwell Bowman and Desmond Dansby, as the parents, nail it.

"Spelling Bee," which won a 2005 Tony Award for best musical, is a quintessential modern American chamber musical. Finn is not a composer of grand show tunes along the lines of Jerry Herman, or an austere practitioner of the compositional arts such as Stephen Sondheim, but he is a proficient songsmith and sharp-witted lyricist. Sheinkin's dialogue is hilarious and often delightfully earthy, especially when the spellers ask to have their words used in a sentence.

Essentially, "Spelling Bee" spoofs spelling bees and their arcane rules and conventions. But to spoof something, you have to love it, and director/choreographer Ann Nieman lovingly spoofs musical theater itself, with adroit references to "The Will Rogers Follies," Chicago" and "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."

Language lovers, word mavens and crossword-puzzle aficionados "? along with musical-theater queens "? will revel in "Spelling Bee."

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee stages at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 25 by the Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre at Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N. Walker.

"?Larry Laneer

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