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One Honey Of A Bee

Touring show will hold viewers spellbound

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My first experience with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, back in January up in New York, was definitely sweet. Too sweet compared with last week's touring edition at Belk Theater. Looking back, I can see a few reasons why I undervalued this William Finn/Rachel Sheinkin gem on my first go-round.

After the intricate brilliance of The Light in the Piazza, followed by the sass and soul of The Color Purple, this little Bee seemed rather modest, frivolous and pathologically cute. The gymnasium setting, the audience participants in the bee and the free candy showered on the rest of us were a tad more glucose than I could tolerate.

My timing wasn't fortuitous. That performance was delayed as we awaited the last-minute arrival of understudy Lisa Yuen to play Rona Lisa Piretti, the bee's emcee. Odd casting. Yuen's presence insidiously stole focus from the true Asian in the ensemble, spelling prodigy Marcy Park. Nor were Yuen's age and ethnicity credible for a woman who had won the bee in this backwater county 22 years earlier.

So if the cast was too amped that afternoon, they had ample cause.

Without the original Beowulf Boritt set -- or the intimacy of Circle in the Square's thrust stage -- the touring Bee can't replicate the high school atmospherics director James Lapine is still delivering on 50th Street. Yet for me, stripping away some of the gimmickry and restoring a more natural balance to the casting has laid bare the heart of this musical.

We still had the comedy of four audience members spontaneously reacting to their scripted juvenile competitors. Before biting the dust, all had to cope with insanely difficult -- or easy -- spelling words seasoned with laughable definitions and usages delivered by neurotic vice principal Douglas Panch. Hearing the fatal bell that signals finis to aspiring spellers, all suffered the ceremonial send-off from comfort counselor Mitch Mahoney, on parole and insincerely at your service.

Along with these humiliations, of course, these audience members got to bask in the spotlight they craved.

Charlotte's Bee losers (who queued in the Belk lobby an hour before showtime to vie for the privilege) shared the stage with one honey of a cast. Eric Peterson was at the head of the class, reveling in the plenitude of William Barfee's quirks. Aside from his signature magic spelling foot, the rotund Barfee competes with his shirt perpetually untucked from his shorts and without the use of one nostril.

Eventually, he bonds with Olive Ostrovsky, the least quirky of the spellers -- and the most pitiful. Lauren Worsham beautifully projected the indomitable faith of a daughter abandoned by both her careering parents. The William-Olive pairing is the sweetest part of the bee.

While Sheinkin's book offers us rich characterizations, she doesn't tear us apart with too much heartbreak as the spellers are eliminated. One of the runners-up needs to lose. Another deserves it. Most memorable of all, defending champion Chip Tolentino has it coming -- in the appropriately titled "My Unfortunate Erection." While Miguel Cervantes couldn't splatter us all with giveaway candy, his "Erection" was as much a showstopper as the one I saw on Broadway.

My only disappointment with the cast was Jennifer Simard, who portrayed Rona as if she were the narrator of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Yes, she belted her theme song, "My Favorite Moment of the Bee," so it impacted impressively in Belk's top balcony. But she seemed to miss the running joke of having three fave moments.

James Kall, however, never missed out on any of vice principal Panch's comic licks, intoning each wacky punchline with the mellifluous -- and clueless -- authority of a Clifton Fadiman. When the Episcopalian was enjoined to drop his phylactery and when Jesus ordered the shrimp, explosions of laughter rocked the house. No less reliable, Alan H. Green infused the ministry of Mahoney's comforting with priceless indifference. Cool!

Leading off the 2006-07 Broadway Lights Series, Spelling Bee augurs well for the more familiar names in the lineup. Those who subscribed to get primo seats for Spamalot, Lion, Scissorhands, Ringwald and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels may have been as pleasantly surprised as I was by this overachieving lead-off hit.

The buzz from the exiting audience sure sounded like it.

***

Peep into the Carolina Actors Studio Theatre during its production of Neon Mirage, now in its final week, and you will behold wonders. There's a new 40-seat theater within the theater at 1118 Clement Ave. that puts you close to a whisper-quiet revolving stage, making you feel like you're playing with house money as you watch this anthology of Vegas sketches. Everybody is in the front row!

Mobsters, chorines, live tigers and the ghost of Elvis are all part of the eerie, sleazy, surreal and sexy cavalcade. While all 16 sketches (by eight different playwrights) aren't jackpots, collectively they offer a meditation on Las Vegas -- the people who built it along with those quintessential Americans who work and play there.

Having covered the ups and downs of the Charlotte theater scene for nearly 20 years, I was most amazed by the diversity -- and proficiency -- of CAST's cast. Simone White and XiaoSong He, newcomers both, scintillated in Chay Yew's "Gestures," a memory piece from the point-of-view of an Asian who feels she has disappointed her mother.

In an impromptu meeting of Mr. Unlucky, Ms. Lucky and Mr. Ordinary, longtime fringe fixture Glenn Hutchinson was joined by newcomers Lisa Geraci and Craig Kolkebeck. Together they made the algebraic logic of Dan Dietz's "Breaking Even" a comedy winner.

Lots of lights, legs and emerging talent here.

***

A couple more new frontiers were trailblazed last week on the performing arts scene. Theatre Charlotte opened its Stage 501 series with a compelling workshop-ish production of Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman on a thrust stage layout in the lobby of the Queens Road barn. Two chairs were all Orlandersmith asked for in her script, a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist. So it hardly seemed to matter that MiZ Ra and Jonathan "JC" Moore held scripts in hand as they unraveled the tragic stories of Alma and Eugene, victims of the ping-pong prejudice caroming back and forth between light-skinned African-Americans and their darker brethren.

Moore's immersion in Eugene's family was every bit as convincing as Ra's low country Geechie accent.

Meanwhile, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's first gig at Halton Theatre made for a positively thrilling Oktoberfest! kicking off the Neighborhood Concerts for 2006-07. Scott Allen Jarrett took over the baton at the last minute from Alan Yamamoto, having already prepped his mighty Oratorio Singers for the date.

A beautiful wooden bandshell kept the orchestral sounds from escaping to the rear of the building, wafting some glorious sonics to the balcony where I decided to sit. Most heavenly were the pieces featuring the Oreos, Schumann's Nachtlied ("Night Song") and Brahms' Schicksalslied ("Song of Destiny"). When the chorus vamoosed for the Mozart Violin Concerto #4, their void left an echoey sound behind for the reduced ensemble that remained with soloist Calin Lupanu.

But when instrumental reinforcements -- full brass and percussion -- arrived for three of Brahms' Hungarian Dances, just partially peopling the upstage, the sound bloomed once again, just as rich and satisfying as when the 104 voices were there.

***

Ann Marie Oliva's new play, The Eyes of God, is plagued with blind spots. The Pi Productions effort at Actor's Theatre boasts some earnest performances, but the twists of Oliva's plot never add up to a coherent point or purpose. Sloppiness is everywhere, from inconsistent characters to insufficient research.

Beth Yost stars as a pitiful victim who, way late in the story, turns out to be an implacable avenger. Until then, she is in the clutches of a strange religious cult whose members incessantly quote biblical passages, followed by chapter and verse citations. Curiously, these pious folk never study the Bible or carry one.

It would be invaluable to know how The Prophet -- Hugh Loomis in a strange, "Surfin' USA" mode -- managed to establish his Eyes of God congregation up in Canada. Be prepared to take this fictional 1999 Montreal on faith, since you won't catch any street names, place names or historical references other than the millennium.

The only French accent you'll hear is from the Montreal detective who suspects The Eyes of terrorism. Mon dieu, but Robert Haulbrook's accent as Roger is as bad as any I've ever heard! Luckily, his interest in all this hypocritical intrigue was almost as infrequent as mine.

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