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Spelling Bee wins with c-h-a-r-m

by: PHOTO BY DICK TRTEK - Jon Quesenberry, musical director, and Ron Palmblad, director, look over some sheet music from 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.'Everyone associated with “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” has a slightly different take on the upcoming musical offering from New Century Players, opening on Friday, Feb. 8.

But they all agree on two things: this is a stellar cast, and the production is fun, fun, fun.

The production features “great music, quirky characters and is very funny. This is a character-driven show, so watching and guiding actors through the process is very satisfying to me, especially when you are as lucky as I am in getting the right people to work with,” said director Ron Palmblad.

“I can’t imagine having a better cast,” said Jon Quesenberry, the music director. “The show was written for everyone involved to have fun; it is impossible not to have fun.”

Although “Spelling Bee” doesn’t really have a traditional plot, Palmblad described the show as “more of a slice-in-time story. It takes place at the county finals spelling bee competition, and the winner will go on to the national competition in Washington, D.C.”

The cast has nine very different characters: six middle-school-age spellers (played by adult actors) and three adults. As the bee proceeds, the audience learns more about the characters through their interactions with one another and flashbacks of their lives and inner thoughts.

Audience interaction

What sets “Spelling Bee” apart from other musicals is the audience-interaction component.

As audience members arrive at the theater, they will find a spellers registration desk, where they can sign up to be part of the spelling bee.

“From the list of volunteers each night, we will select four people to be in the show as contestants in the bee. They will be given instructions to just be themselves and follow the simple rules: When their name is called, they must go to the microphone; when the word is given, they must ask for a definition; then they ask for the word to be used in a sentence; and then they spell the word,” Palmblad said.

Usually characters in a play or musical interact only with one another, but in this play, some of the characters reach out to the audience as well.

Bryan Kinder, 19, plays Chip, an outgoing Boy Scout who wants to have the best things in life, and develops an attachment to an audience member, he said.

He, like several others in the cast, said he wanted to be in the show because he had seen the show on a national tour that came to Portland and had heard the soundtrack.

“I had to be in this show — it is so much fun,” Kinder said.

“My character interacts with the volunteer spellers onstage and I high-five with an audience member at the end,” said Kira Batcheller, 23, who plays 12-year-old Marcy Park.

She described her character as “the ultimate overachiever, know-it-all. She comes from a Catholic school background and thinks God wants her to be perfect.”

Audiences will like “Spelling Bee,” she added, because of its “quirky and unique humor — it is not like any other show.”

Todd Carlson, one of the three adult characters, plays Mitch, an ex-convict doing community service by acting as a sort-of counselor to the spelling bee participants. He escorts the audience volunteers off stage and sings a special song to one of them.

“I also explain to the audience the challenges of comforting the spellers, who don’t understand that good kids don’t always win. That is hard life lesson,” he said.

Carlson is having a ball playing the “bad guy,” he said, and has thrown himself into the part, by putting together his own costume of a black leather vest, studded armbands and fake arm tattoos. He also learned a life lesson when he went to the grocery store after rehearsal one night.

“I was still wearing part of my costume, and I noticed that people were exiting the aisle I was in. It is so much fun to be bad,” he said.

Larger than life

The four remaining young actors don’t have as much audience interaction, but they are characters modeled on real life and that people will relate to, they noted.

Stephanie Leppert, 22, a Rex Putnam High School graduate, plays Olive Ostrovsky, who is very shy.

“She is really insecure, and it is hard for her to reach out to people,” Leppert said. “Everyone can relate to Olive; she is just coming out of her shell and realizing her potential. Like Olive, everyone wants their parents to love them; she just wants her mom and dad’s approval.”

Although most people have not come from a background of “aggressive hippies,” like Tom Young’s character of Leaf Coneybear, they may be able to understand his excitement at being part of something completely new.

“He is an ADD, homeschooled, sheltered child who is easily distracted,” noted Young, 22.

Brandee Palmblad, 27, plays Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere, a “very smart” young woman who “puts pressure on herself to be the best she can be.”

She has two fathers, Dan Schwartz and Carl Grubenierre, thus her last name is a combination of their last names, Palmblad said.

Playing another smart character, William Barfee, is Larry Taylor, 24.

“William is quite into science, and he is mean to those around him, but this is more of a defense mechanism,” Taylor said.

Taylor was attracted to the role, which he said is “larger than life,” and to the show, because he “loved it when I saw it on the national tour.”

Playing a fun character

The two remaining adult actors will be familiar faces to theatergoers.

People will recognize Terry Lybecker from many performances with New Century Players, and they may know Oregon City resident Chanda Hall from her work as the artistic director of Staged! Musical Theatre.

Lybecker has the only non-singing role in the production, that of Vice Principal Douglas Panch.

“He is part-disciplinarian and part-drill sergeant, and he thinks he is very clever,” as he helps officiate at the spelling bee, Lybecker said.

What audiences will like best about the production is the really good songs, he said, adding, “Our cast hits these harmonies really sharply and really well. They are all fantastic singers, and our musical director really has a good ear; he has whipped the cast into shape.”

Hall said she is enjoying being on the performing side of the stage, in her role as Rona Lisa Perretti, the moderator of the spelling bee.

“Rona is someone whose high point occurred when she was 12, when she won the county spelling bee. It launched her in a new direction, but nothing since has quite lived up to that moment of glory,” Hall said.

There are too many good scenes for Palmblad to pick a favorite, but both he and Quesenberry described one number, “I Love You,” as being special to the production.

“One of the most touching scenes is the ‘I Love You’ song. It is a fantasy moment when one of the spellers reveals her home life situation and how she wishes it could be, with both her parents there,” Palmblad said.

Quesenberry added that the song provides a “heart wrenching” moment.

by: PHOTO BY DICK TRTEK - Chanda Hall, far right, hands out numbers to, top row: Brandee Palmblad and Bryan Kinder; middle  row: Stephanie Leppert and Tom Young; and bottom row, Larry Taylor and Kira Batcheller.

Fast facts

The New Century Players present “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”

Performance dates: Feb, 8, 9, 14, 15 and 16 at 7:30 p.m., and Feb. 10 and 17 at 2 p.m.

Venue: Milwaukie High School Blackbox Theater, 11300 S.E. 23rd Ave., in Milwaukie

Tickets: General admission $20; students/seniors $15. They are available online at NewCenturyPlayers.org.

Information: call 503-367-2620.



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