All in’s ‘spelling bee’ presents a winner
By MARILYN JOZWIK
Published May 20, 2019
“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” presented by All In Productions, is a musical that performers gravitate toward because there are so many distinct characters – nine, to be exact. Every one of the six spellers featured is a unique personality, coming to the bee with lots of baggage -- high expectations, dysfunctional families, bullying, loneliness and a whole host of other adolescent land mines. There is a lot for actors to work with, have fun with. These characters are portrayed in hyperbole (some are really out there), but there is so much truth about who they are.
The show, directed by Mitch Weindorf, takes place at a fictional town’s high school. The bee is hosted by Rona Lisa Perretti (Samantha Sostarich), a former bee champion who delights in returning to those glorious days of her past. Sostarich has a dynamic, engaging persona and a lovely voice that pleasantly handles the high notes in ensemble numbers and especially in her solo, “My Favorite Moment of the Bee.”
Delivering the words to the spellers is Vice-Principal Douglas Panch (Robby McGhee), who has returned to the school after a five-year hiatus. We’re not sure why, but he tells us he’s “in a better place” now. McGhee adds a whole dimension of hilarity with his presentation of the words, their meanings and use in sentences. I’ve seen it done as somewhat of a throwaway role, but McGhee’s presence, delivery and staging put him delightfully in the foreground.
The intimate Next Act Theatre is the perfect performance space for the show, since the audience – several of whom end up in the bee -- doubles as the friends and family of the spellers, making for a different dynamic from most shows.
This cast engaged the very enthusiastic audience from the very beginning as they displayed their quirks. When Marcy Park, played by Ashley Oviedo, steps out for the opening number with the other spellers she maintains a no-nonsense façade that carries over throughout the show (until she sees Jesus!). To coin a phrase, her looks could kill. I love her mean-mug turns at the mike and taciturn exchanges. When Rona brightly says she’s “all business,” Oviedo’s Marcy sourly deflects with, “No I’m not.”
All characters follow that script with their engaging characterizations. Gage Patterson’s William Barfee has an equally focused demeanor. He is socially inept, slightly hunched with a nerdish voice. He has great fun with his “magic foot,” a device he uses to spell out words.
Adam Qutaishat gives his Leaf Coneybear a light-as-air feeling, flying about the stage with his yellow Cape (we learn from Rona that Leaf makes his own clothes), sometimes leaping into the air with joy at where he has landed despite a lifetime of being put down.
As Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere (a name she inherited from her two demanding dads), Stephanie Staszak has perfected a lisp for her extremely perky character, while Ava Bush as Olive Ostrovsky visibly carries the burden of a lonely childhood bereft of parental guidance with her disconsolate countenance.
Rounding out the spellers is Romesh Alex Jaya as Chip Tolentino, a cocky Boy Scout whose infatuation with a young audience member is his undoing. Jaya’s high energy Chip is great fun, especially when he’s relegated to a candy vendor.
Adding another dimension to the show is Ernest Bell, who plays Mitch Mahoney, an ex-con out on parole and serving as, ironically, the bee’s comfort counselor. Bell has a silky, smooth voice that works well for his character and in tunes such as the absolutely gorgeous “I Love You Song,” also featuring Bush and Sostarich.
This show, with book by Rachel Sheinkin, features the catchy tunes of William Finn. Under music director Paula Foley Tillen the cast and orchestra blend organically into the show, slipping easily into song. The five-piece orchestra, with Tillen conducting and on keyboards, keeps a snappy pace, which keeps the bee buzzing.
Even the four audience members picked for the bee merged with the performers nicely, especially the last audience member standing, who left with laughs to the extended “Good-bye,” which display the ensemble’s pleasant harmonies and strong voice projection.
There is a lot of great sound from this small cast.
Choreographer Alicia Rice has this group executing crisp moves, with lots of effective upper body movement, which works especially well with the bleacher style seating. Numbers such as “Pandemonium” and Oviedo’s athletic “I Speak Six Languages” have loads of energy and movement that seems to burst right off the stage.
Even if you’ve seen this show before, you’ll find that the All In cast and crew has found new, creative ways to tell the story.
If you go
Who: All In Productions
What: “The Putnam County 25th Annual Spelling Bee”
Where: Next Act Theatre, 255 W. Water St., Milwaukee
When: Through May 25
Info/Tickets: allin.mke.com; 414-278-0765