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Back at NKU, Local Actor Joins Talented Cast of "Spelling Bee"

Crepuscule. C-R-E-P-U-S-C-U-L-E. Meaning: twilight. So why not just say ‘twilight’?

Because it’s a spelling bee – jolly musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, an affectionate spoof about the single-minded kids who compete (and their teachers and parentsand of course an ex-con “Comfort Counselor.”)

Spelling Bee opens Wednesday at Commonwealth Summer Dinner Theatre at NorthernKentucky University, continuing through July 26 and top area talents Roderick Justice
(director/choreographer) and Jamey Strawn (musical director) can be counted on to deliver.

It stars some NKU favorites, including Spenser Smith as Chip Tolentino, winner of the 24th Putnam County bee, but a little distracted this year, what with the ferocious onset of puberty. Smith is back on the NKU stage for the first time since he graduated in 2011. He’s been busy for the last four years. He toured with National Players, which took him across the U.S. to the Rockies and which he calls “a perfect experience for a recent graduate.”

Along with performing, duties included assistant stage managing and running lights and – all familiar ground because “at NKU we were required to learn a little of everything.”

He returned to Cincinnati and signed on as an intern at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati; last year he was part of the Children’s Theatre resident company. Smith has spent the last few summers as part of the outdoor drama Lincoln at Indiana’s Lincoln State Park, all about Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood in southern Indiana. The show is on hiatus this year (the amphitheater is changing management), giving playwright Ken Jones (already on the job as the first director of NKU’s new, trans-disciplinary School of the Arts) a chance to do some revisions for 2016 and the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.

And giving Smith a chance to stay in Cincinnati for two dandy roles.

He’s fresh off Covedale’s The Producers, co-starring as Leo Bloom. (He was hoping to sign on with Carnegie season opener Company in August, but his rehearsal/performance schedule was packed too tightly.)

Now Smith is onstage spelling. He remembers a fifth grade spelling bee in his school’s cafetorium where he misspelled ‘length.’ “Or maybe ‘width…”

Spelling Bee seems light as air but there’s a tricky part. Well, two. First, there’s no room for misspellings in the wrong moment by the competitors. And, “There’s so much audience participation. The show has a whole improve section,” Smith said.

Fear not, ticket-holders. No one is dragged on stage from the audience. Registration forms will be distributed during dinner. Four audience members will be chosen and given brief instructions. They are called up from their seats during the show to join the bee as finalists.

“The script comes with pages and pages and pages of suggested ad libs,” Smith laughs. “’If this happens, try this.’ There are specific notes for potential volunteers, from men with gray hair to women with low-cut blouses. (Always with the sexist jokes, even when a show is about spelling…)

Meet the rest of the competitors, whose stories are all told during the course of the bee:

William Barfee (Brandon Bentley): A finalist last year, he was eliminated because of an allergic reaction to peanuts and is back for vindication. He has only one working nostril, but his “Magic Foot” is a showstopper.

Leaaf Coneybear (Korey Harlow): Home-schooled, and comes from a large family of former hippies. He has severe Attention Deficit Disorder and spells words correctly while in a trance.

Olive Ostrovsky (Hannah Gregory): A shy competitive spelling first-timer, and not a little neglected – mom is at an ashram in India, dad is working late. As usual.

Marcy Park (Haley Jones): Marcy placed ninth in last year’s nationals, she speaks six languages, is a member of all-American hockey, a championship rugby player, plays Chopin and Mozart on multiple instruments, sleeps only three hours a night, hides in the bathroom cabinet....

Logainne Schwartandgrunenuerre (Madeleine Drees): At 10, Schwartzy is the youngest speller, au courant on political figures and driven by the desire to win to make her two uber-competitive fathers proud.

What’s next for Smith? “People always ask if I’m going to move. I’m perfectly happy living and working (he’s a manager at Joe’s Crab Shack) here. There’s tons of stuff to do and plenty of companies doing really great work. And tons of work for non-Equity actors.”

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, July 8-26. Commonwealth Theatre Company, Strauss Studio Theatre, Fine Arts Center, Northern Kentucky University. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, dinner buffet served 90 minutes before show. Tickets $35. Rush tickets (show only) $15, students $10. 859-572-5464 and

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts

Photo provided: (L to R) Haley Jones, Korey Harlow, Madeleine Drees, Spenser Smith, Hannah Gregory, and Brandon Bentley

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