'Spelling Bee' bounces along unexpectedly
All In Productions lives up to its name in this audience-involved musical

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

May 23, 2019

From left, front row first, Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Stephanie Staszak), Leaf Coneybear (Adam Qutaishat), Olive Ostrovsky (Ava Bush), and back row, William Barfˇe (Gage Patterson), Marcy Park (Ashley Oviedo) and Chip Tolentino (Romesh Alex Jaya) listen intently to the rules of the bee in All In Productions’ “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
Submitted photo

MILWAUKEE - A relatively recent musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is not exactly what you would expect from the title.

Several recent movies have dealt with the subject of spelling bees, but this is the first stage presentation of this particular form of competition, geared more for an adult than a children’s audience. When it hit Broadway in 2005, it won two Tony awards and ran for three years.

Six main contestants plus four nameless participants drawn from the audience comprise the competitors. Three other characters - the organizer, the official word reader, and the comfort counselor - fill out the cast. Each character is quite well-developed, which makes us care about what happens to each of them.  

After the enthusiastic introduction to the proceedings by the organizer and former spelling champ Rona Lisa Perretti, played with punch by Samantha Sostarich, the bee begins with its choice of ridiculously obscure words in most cases. The definitions and sentences given for each word provide some of the humor, nicely delivered by the word reader Robby McGhee. A very clever script plus some delightful music provided by talented vocalists well-accompanied by a group of five instrumentalists, led by Paula Tillen Foley, combine to provide our enjoyment.  

Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre (Stephanie Staszak) spells while Vice Principal Panch (Robby McGhee) and Rona Lisa Peretti (Samantha Ostrich) listen on in All In Productions’ “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
Submitted photo

What motivates a person to want to participate in a spelling bee anyway? Is it a love of or facility with words?  A demonstration of parental pressure? An opportunity to prove one’s intelligence? To give one the pleasure of beating someone else or to provide a forum for an over-achiever?

The story is punctuated along the way with various solo or ensemble numbers, together with some well-executed choreography directed by Alicia Rice. Probably the crowning number is the duet by Olive’s parents, the “I Love You” song, strongly delivered by Ernest Bell and Samantha Sostarich, who temporarily stepped into alternate roles, though the words of their ardent song only underlined the loneliness of their child, Olive, poignantly played by Ava Bush.  

Ashley Oviedo as the spunky Marcy Park demonstrated her no-nonsense approach to the event and she certainly shone in her solo number.  Her lithe body and astute mind combined in her breathless number where she broke the chains of perfection. Being a perfect over-achiever is a role that’s hard to sustain.  

Gage Patterson as William Barfee, the boy with the magic foot and the grumpy disposition, was memorable as was the contestant with “a problem,” Chip Tolentino, well played by Romesh Alex Jaya.  

The little lisper with the liberal views, Logaine Schwartzandgrubenniere, stood up to the world, as she defended her gay fathers and all others who suffer the stigma of being different.  Nicely done, Stephanie Staszak.  

A combination of kindness and bravado was well-portrayed by the comfort counselor who offered hugs and a box of apple juice to the losers. Ernest Bell had a voice to match his cocky attitude. Lastly, the lad with the superman cape and strong desire to prove he was smart, Leaf Coneybear, was nicely rendered by Adam Qutaishat.  

Directed by Mitch Weindorf, this comic musical with meat, was a delight. All In Productions once again proved its worth in this well-honed offering. The audience, including its four well-chosen participants, had a good time with many laughs as well as some issues to think about.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”

The musical runs through Saturday at the Next Act Theatre at 255 S. Water St., Milwaukee.
Call 414-278-0765.