Skylight’s “Spelling Bee” a warm and wispy night of high hopes on musical parade

Samantha Sostarich surrounded by her spelling bee wanna bees.

No matter what kind of game you are playing or watching, the rhythm normally follows a predictable pattern.

Play football or basketball, Monopoly, bridge, golf, Fortnite or Call of Duty, dominoes, Saturday morning soccer, Trivial Pursuit – it’s always the same.

Fun and cheerful in the early going and then, when victory or defeat are rubbing elbows, things get serious and tense and even a little uncomfortable.

It’s even the same thing in a middle school spelling bee, as evidenced by the production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the wispy little musical that opened over the weekend at Skylight Music Theatre.

Under the watchful eye of Rona Lisa Peretti, a hot shot real estate salesperson and former Bee champion, a collection of socially awkward misfits gather for their chance – a lonely chance – at a brass ring that has eluded them everywhere else in their lives.

Like reality, the first act of this show is one joy-filled laugh after another, full of wonderful songs and laughs galore. The second act is less joyful, indeed it has elements of sadness and pain that are a dramatic counterpoint to the first part of the play. 

It all adds up to an evening of mixed emotion for those of us in the audience.  At intermission everyone had a smile and a chuckle. On the way out of the theater it was noticeably more quiet. 

Director and Choreographer Brian Cowing gave plenty of room for his talented cast of actors to do what they do best – pull every laugh out of every joke and situation all evening long. He kept things moving along and threw in dashes of limited but spirited choreography that was skillful.

The strongest thing Mr. Cowing has going for him is a cast full of actors, singers and (even) dancers who are as delightful as can be.

The cast is led by Samantha Sostarich who plays Ms. Peretti, the lady who runs the spelling bee. Ms. Sostarich introduces the story, the players and just about everything else with the kind of aplomb you might expect from a woman who loves being the biggest fish in this small pond. Ms. Sostarich has grown into a marvelous presence on stage, with a wonderful voice and a magnificent touch for comedy. As she takes her place behind that infernal spelling bee bell, you know you are in good hands with Ms. Sostarich at the helm.

She is joined at the table by Robby McGhee, a co-founder of all In Productions and an actor who is starting to get good roles in Milwaukee. He plays an assistant principal who is moving on from a slightly troubled past. Mr. McGhee is a burly presence who plays marvelously with Ms. Sostarich.

At the heart of this contest are the six kids who all want to go home with the big cup and win a trip to nationals in Washington D. C. 

James Carrington plays William Barfee whose last name is continually mispronounced (it rhymes with parfait). Mr. Carrington never met a double cheeseburger he didn’t like, and insists he looks great in a pair of cargo shorts and uses a “magic foot” to help him spell out the words. Mr. Carrington has a carriage that begs for affection and it’s easy to take him to your heart.

Kendyl Ito plays Marcy Park, a young girl burdened by expectations that she will always be perfect. Ms. Ito is an adult Equity actor from New York but she creates a middle school student to perfection. Her big number, when she revolts against the life of high expectations that has been crafted for her, is perhaps the highlight of the evening. 

Yando Lopez plays defending champion Chip Tolentino with a verve and easy smile that turns him into every teenage boy you’ve ever loved. He is done in, however, by his inability to control his hormones and his song that opens the second act (an homage to an involuntary erection) is a crowd grabber.

Kaylee Annable plays Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, saddled with gay fathers, pigtails that seem somehow too young and a lisp that sends shivers down your spine.

Ryan Stajmiger plays Leaf Coneybear, suffering from the conflict between sibling ridicule and personal egotism. Mr. Stajmiger creates a character who you think might end up either in jail or the governor’s office.

And finally there is Amanda Rodriguez who plays Olive Ostrovsky, a young girl whose life is a latch key. She has been dropped off alone, missing her mother who has traveled to India and who doesn’t have the $25 entry fee. As she waits and hopes for her father to arrive we are swept up in the sadness lurking just beneath her quixotic surface. 

Ms. Sostrach steps into the role of her mother for the poignant “The I Love You Song,” the warmest moment of the evening shared with Shawn Holmes who steps out of his role as the Comfort Counselor who is responsible for bidding goodbye to those who miss a word. 

There is something special about watching the children of this cast try their hardest to both define their goal and reach it. 

This is geekdom at its most touching and precise. It’s a competition, yes, but there is no bitter battling on this stage.

Instead, it’s just a bunch of kids trying to figure out how they can actually get a shot at a very special brass ring.

Production Credits: Director/Choreographer, Brian Cowing; Music Director, David Bonofiglio; Costume Designer, Alexae Visel; Lighting Designer, Jamie Roderick; Sound Designer, Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Stage Manager, Allyson Schiller; Production Photographer , Ross Zentner.

 

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