All In Productions brings unsullied fun to the stage this month with its stAging of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. A cozy, little staging at Next Act Theatre comes to life with a very pleasantly diverse cast. The musical comedy moves along quite briskly with heartwarming characterization resonating through a large ensemble. The musical version of a small town spelling bee somewhere in the late ’90s comes to life on stage with more of a sense of comedy than it has in the past. All of the cheesy, little jokes feel that much more vivid here. All in productions has done a remarkable job of coaxing genuine humor out of what might at times feel like relatively weak jokes.
The show’s director Mitch Weindorf’s handling of the production comes from a place of familiarity. He knows what works and what doesn’t. Weindorf finds the right mix of music and mood and emotion in a story where adults play children in a very adult-feeling competition.
He balances everything in a production that does better with the comedic end of the show the most previous productions have managed on local stages. Some of the success of the comedy might come from assistant director and Milwaukee comedy veteran Beth Lewinski. She works for the cast of that does a really good job of amplifying silly little jokes in a way but make them land a much better than the release good. The fact that she’s able to do this without making it seem cloying or desperate is quite an accomplishment. This show knows it’s funny. There’s no sense of panic or desperation...which keeps everything refreshingly fun throughout.
As the show opens, faculty and students arrive for a spelling competition that will run roughly 2 hours with one intermission. Samantha Sostarich proudly radiates gentle authority in the role of Bee official Rona Lisa Perretti. Long ago Rona won that spelling bee that she know helps officiate. Sostarich has a sweetly maternal sense about her in the role. She is matched by Robby McGhee in gruff-but-lovable mode as Vice Principal Douglas Panch who has recently returned to his post after a bit of an outburst forced him to take some time away from school. The role allows McGhee to improvise in places, which plays to the strengths of someone who has a lot of experience doing clever improv comedy. Ernest Bell rounds out the central adult characters as the charismatically intimidating Mitch Mahoney--a comfort aid for contestants who fail.
Stephanie Staszak plays one of the youngest more prominent students in the competition: Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre. Staszak cuts a heroic figure as a precocious, socially conscious little girl who is a big part of the gay-straight alliance at her grade school. The character can come across as being strangely awkward, but Staszak imbues the character with the kind of vulnerable confidence that makes her refreshingly complicated.
Adam Qutaishat sits next to Logainne throughout the competition in the role of gracefully clueless, endearingly weird. savant Leaf Coneybear. Qutaishat plays the role in a dreamy daze that adds a whimsical layer of personality to the ensemble.
Ava Bush navigates an irresistibly fragile sweetness in the role of Olive Ostrovsky. Olive’s mom is off on a spiritual journey in India while her father is running late and has yet to arrive at the competition, so it’s up to speculation as to quite how she’s going to pay the entry fee. Bush’s body language is remarkably expressive in the role of an outsider girl who loves spelling. It’s an impressively moving performance. So much of the architecture of the script is pointed in the direction of sympathy for Olive. It can be difficult to deliver a genuinely heartfelt performance when the pathos of a character is so heavily-rendered, but Bush is heartbreakingly subtle onstage. In and amidst all of the craziness of the story, Bush allows herself to be shy and reserved. It’s a really striking contrast.
Romesh Alex Haya amplifies the awkwardness as a competitive jock fish-out-of-water who is determined to win the bee. The script does the character a great service by not making him out to be the bully that this kind of character so often gets framed as in this type of show. Haya takes the awkwardness of the character and runs with it.
Gabe Patterson is charming as the impeccably confident William Barfée--a competitor who gains confidence through spelling everything out on the floor with his foot to make certain that he’s got the right answer. Patterson’s distinctly muffled spin on the Barfée’s personality gives the character a very distinctive stage presence.
Ashley Oviedo is mercilessly precise as multi-disciplinary perfectionist Marcy Park. Oviedo is irresistible as a grade school ninja deftly slicing through every challenge that’s placed in her path. Her greatest challenge awaits in the course of the play when the vision of a certain messiah gives her an opportunity that she might not have ever previously considered.
Every character in the ensemble has his or her own character arc. All the character arcs slide around each other remarkably well in a story that’s been brought together by Weindorf, Lewinski and Music Director Paula Foley Tillen. I’ve seen at least three other productions of this show including the touring Broadway version a few years back. Thanks to an impressive cast under great direction, this is easily the most satisfying production of the musical that I’ve seen. Honestly prior to All In, I don’t know that I honestly would have been able to say that I even liked the show. Now I know I do. In the right hands, it’s a great script. All In has brought together the right elements to bring this show together.
All In Productions’ staging of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee run through May 25 at the Next Act Theatre on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit All In online.