I am always amazed at how much action a theater company can bring to the musical 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.'
After all, the whole show is set on the stage of a middle school spelling bee. Boring? Absolutely not!
Through light, sound and ingenious staging, the show takes you to other places and times in the contestants' lives, which helps you understand just what sort of emotional baggage they are hauling every time they step to the microphone.
More than any other community theater staging of the show I've seen, Sunset brings exceptionally effective light and sound to this show, giving the equally exceptional cast the perfect playground to showcase their distinctive, quirky characters.
It starts with a bold look to the stage, with its black backdrop curtain and two red panels. Basically the only props are a table, with a patriotic blue skirt for the bee's two commentators, the red bleachers and a standing microphone for the spellers. The show gets a lot of mileage out of such a simple set.
Cast at high-octane level
The show features six spellers, requiring performers to 'bring it.' This cast does, and then some. These are fun roles that really can't be overdone. Director Diana Alioto has them all at high-octane levels for this show.
But first, the show needs strong performances from its two anchors, Rona Lisa Peretti (Carrie Gray), a former spelling champ herself who is the show's emcee, and Vice Principal Douglas Panch (Nick Zuiker), who delivers the words to the contestants.
I first saw Gray on the community theater stage a few years ago when she played Mother Superior in Waukesha Civic Theatre's 'The Sound of Music.' She sang one of the most gorgeous versions of 'Climb Every Mountain' I've heard. She has lots of opportunity to use her silky, smooth soprano voice in this show, and it just flows like a river. You get the impression that singing is as natural as speaking is to her.
As Panch, Zuiker keeps a steady hand on the rudder with a good sense of timing to squeeze a lot of mileage out of some of the hilarious words, meanings and sentences the words are used in.
But the six spellers really take the spotlight. All these characters are misfits and come to the bee with an obsession to win. But when they see others with similar ambitions and peccadilloes, they realize they have found a niche. And that's really what they've been seeking.
William Barfee (Zachary Dean) has a secret weapon: He spells out words on the floor with his foot. In 'Magic Foot' all the spellers join in a snappy dance and song to celebrate with Barfee. Dean is a delight in the role of his intense, nerdy character, who turns soft when he finds a connection with another speller, Olive Ostrovsky (Maddison Underberg).
Benjamin Johnson as Chip Tolentino, the Boy Scout whose distraction with a pretty young audience member leads to his undoing, renders a delightful 'Chip's Lament,' describing the 'unfortunate' incident.
Perhaps the most unusual of the unique characters is Leaf Coneybear, who comes to the bee wearing a red cape and brightly colored clothes that he's made himself. Shawn Schmidt's Coneybear is as sweet and lovable as a teddy bear as he switches from distracted to 'in the zone' when he's spelling, a conceit that is nicely handled with light and sound. Schmidt's 'I'm Not That Smart' is a charming bit.
The three girl contestants are also wonderful. I loved Kaya Atadero as Marcy Park, who never strays from her snippy, confident character until she imagines a meeting with Jesus in a very funny scene. In 'I Speak Six Languages,' Atadero flits about the stage energetically and gracefully, showing off her athleticism and considerable stage presence.
As Logainne Schwartzandgrubennere, whose parents are two dads, Ava Thomann lisps out her hopes and dreams drummed into her by her unorthodox family in 'Woe is Me.'
Underberg's Olive is pitch perfect. Her shy character describes how her friends in the dictionary are better than the ones in school in 'My Friend the Dictionary.'
As the bee's 'comfort counselor' and in a couple of dad roles, Cohl Carter-Wright lends both a tough, paroled convict swagger and a pleasant tenor voice and demeanor to his roles.
The three audience members who round out the bee fit in nicely, especially in the show's centerpiece, 'Pandemonium,' which features a rotating bleacher and a — literally — swinging speller in a riotous romp.
Music director Mark Mrozek, who also plays keyboards, keeps the vocals in the foreground with crisp, nicely blended sounds.
If you go
WHO: Sunset Playhouse
WHAT: 'The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee'
WHEN: Through May 8
WHERE: 800 Elm Grove Road, Elm Grove
TICKETS/INFO: (262) 782-4430; www.sunsetplayhouse.com