Jeremy Shane isn't a newcomer in Charlotte, but until the current Theatre Charlotte production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, the actor was a somewhat rare delicacy tasted only by fans of the absurdist fare served up by Machine Theatre (ThomThom) or the juvenilia at ImaginOn (How I Became a Pirate and Jingle Bells Batman Smells). Now he's William Barfee, proud defender of the accent aigu in his surname and wielder of the magical spelling foot.
Savage Red, the would-be poet Shane portrayed in Machine's fantasia on To Kill a Mockingbird, set the tone for his subsequent roles: spasmodically wild, comical and effete. Among the other misfit middle-schoolers vying for the privilege of going on to the state finals, Shane's Barfee stands apart as the alpha slob. Few Charlotte actors could come close to equaling the oafish splat Shane makes in his big "Magic Foot" showcase.
Yet it would be overpraising Shane to say he had anything better than the fifth-best voice in this stellar cast, directed pitch-perfectly by Dennis Delamar. There are four belters in this lineup who stand head-and-shoulders above Shane with their tonsils' tensility.
First to get booted from the bee is Ryan Deal as Chip Tollentino. Sporting a chestful of Boy Scout merit badges and returning as defending champion, Chip explains his humiliating demise at the beginning of Act 2 with another showstopper, "My Unfortunate Erection." We can dole out additional kudos to Deal as music director of this unpretentious William Finn score.
Last to head skulking off to the wings is Cassandra Howley Wood as Olive Ostrovsky, the most pitiable of the contestants, since neither of her parents can make it to the bee — or pay her entrance fee. Wood was in the Edge Theatre Company version of Spelling Bee last summer in Rock Hill. But this performance, especially what Wood does with "The I Love You Song," blows last year's completely away.
In adult roles, Tyler Smith and Megan Midkiff also boast prodigious pipes. Mitch Mahoney is one of the most inventive characters in Rachel Sheinkin's adorable book, a gruff parolee who serves as the bee's official comforter to fulfill his community service obligation, handing out fruit juice boxes and tight, uncomforting hugs as he leads the losing spellers offstage. The gospel fire in Smith's voice blazes forth in "The Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" and later in a cameo as Jesus Christ.
And what superlatives can we lavish upon newcomer Midkiff as past spelling champion Rona Lisa Perretti, our moderator? Though saddled with a string of "Favorite Moment of the Bee" refrains, Midkiff's soprano cuts like a shining sword through every ensemble, and she teams with Deal as Olive's parents for the most startling backup vocal I've heard in years.
Not to be forgotten is Joe McCourt, past star of Theatre Charlotte's Godspell and Rent, basically tying his seductive vocal cords behind his back as Leaf Coneybear. Caped and helmeted, Leaf's weirdness is embodied in his personal anthem, "I'm Not That Smart." Kayla Piscatelli as former National Spelling Bee finalist Marcy Park shows us vividly how uneasy lies the crown on overachieving royalty.
Wearing another priceless costume creation by Claire Robinson, newcomer Chesson Kusterer is Logainne Schwartandgrubenniere, aching to please the gay parents who have stuck her with her overlong name. Despite her quirkiness and anxieties, Logainne outlasted all the spelling contestants who volunteered from the audience. John West as the neurotic Vice Principal Panch presides over the bee, often upstaging everyone with his deadpan definitions and usage examples. You bet he snaps!
Even if you didn't like the touring version of Spelling Bee at Belk Theater in 2006, you'd be w-i-s-e to give this Queens Road version a try. Icing on the cake and the cherry on top: Linda Booth's juvenile choreography and a topical shot at Mitt Romney.