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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’ zippy in De Pere

Critic At Large

Birder Players

Window poster at Broadway Theatre in De Pere with Bucky Marklein in character for Birder Players production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” (Warren Gerds)

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” leads many lives. Each performance is guaranteed to be different than the last and the next. The production on show by the sturdy Birder Players in Broadway Theatre also has a tone of its own on the way to splashing on the company’s trademark entertainment value.

What’s taking place is a spelling bee – real words and real definitions (mostly). The show captures the earnestness of the contests and contestants – adding song and dance and storylines for all the participants.

A tried-and-true gimmick is the weaving in of four audience volunteers. The four, too, are supplied with life storylines (phony) that are part of the levity. The four, too, are called on individually to spell a word. In sequence, everyone is given words to spell, with hints that are helpful, comical or sassy. One volunteer gets “cow,” which sets everyone off. The four volunteers, too, are swept into song-and-dance action – mostly flaying and guessing their next move. The four, too, are all misspelled out of the “contest” by intermission.

By the end, there will be a winner of the contest – and revelations of characters. This is a comedy musical that has heart once it gets beyond its presentation of seven quirky kids who are prime bully bait. Adult humor is included, but this production shies from unloading bundles of double entendre jokes and shady storylines of some interpretations I’ve seen elsewhere. In ways, this is a cleaner version.

The show also turns. The poking-fun atmosphere dissolves. The climactic song – “The I Love You Song” – builds and builds to a heart-tugging emotional pitch and gives the musical reason to be.

Holding the directing reins is Kirk Graves, who also is one of the cast contestants. All holds together well in Kirk Graves’ hands. The mark of quality of Birder Players resonates.

Through adults portraying children, the show runs a gamut of adolescent personalities that are either mutant in their hard drive or simply going through a phase. One kid, Leaf Coneybear (Lucas Jordan), is fused to failure through his family. William Barfée (Kirk Graves), relies on the crutch of spelling out words by drawing them on the floor with his foot. One girl, Logainne (Bree Patzke), has the challenge of failure not being an option. Chip (Bucky Marklein) is going through puberty right before everyone’s eyes. Marcy (Laura Grefe) is a know-it-all trying to live up to impossible expectations. Olive (Mary Delaney) is torn between parents on different tracks, one off to the other side of the world, one a no-show with her entry fee.

In the mix are the adults, also flawed, who run the bee – the gung-ho organizer who is a window into why some people are fascinated by the spelling bee culture (Natalie Rein), the vice principal with an iffy past (Kristofer Holly) and the parolee doing goody-goody community service (Keith Pratt).

Included in this production are a few bits about the COVID-19 pandemic. One is about the bee being about as organized as a Zoom party from 2020. The production itself was delayed two times before finally coming to life now.

This show is a house of cards built on character building, and this cast does an excellent job of holding it all together.

Imagined sequences add flavor. Logainne lives with two fathers (gay). Marcy is visited by Jesus. Olive sings with the father she lives with and the mother who is off on a soul-searching visit to India.

The sound gets a little “hot” – loud – at times in earnest numbers.

In the mix are richly sung notes, gag lines all over the place and well-placed moments of sensitivity like Leaf Coneybear thinking out loud: “How could a flea such as me think he’s good at spelling.”

***

Creative: Music and lyrics – William Finn; book – Rachel Sheinkin; conception – Rebecca Feldman; additional material – Jay Reiss; director – Kirt Graves; producer, artistic director – Alicia Birder; music director – Chad Lemerrande; lighting design – Jeffrey James Frelich Jr.; sound engineer – Chloe Ledvina; mixing engineer – Rebekah Witte; stage manager – Frank Tower; assistant stage manager – Jenna Peterson; set construction – Susan Elliott, Warren Elliott, Jim Sanders; props – Ann Preiss Gray, Jenna Peterson, Natalie Rein; costume coordinator – Jolee Jackson; marketing director – Ana Lissa Baaken

Cast:

Rona Lisa Peretti, Olive’s Mom – Natalie Rein

Chip Tolentino, Jesus – Bucky Marklein

Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre – Bree Patzke

Leaf Coneybear, Carl Dad – Lucas Jordan

William Barfeé – Kirt Graves

Marcy Park – Laura Grefe

Olive Ostrovsky – Mary Delaney

Douglas Panch – Kristofer Holly

Mitch Maloney, Dan Dad, Olive’s Dad – Keith Pratt

Rona’s Announcer Voice – Adam Matthewson

Running time: Two hours

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. July 16; 1 and 7:30 p.m. July 17; 7:30 p.m. July 20-23; 1 p.m. July 24; 7:30 p.m. July 27-29

Info: birderonbroadway

Note: Due to some adult themes, parental guidance is suggested.

***

Musical numbers (recorded soundtrack)

Act I

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” – Company

“The Spelling Rules”/“My Favorite Moment of the Bee” – Rona, Panch, Mitch, Spellers

“My Friend, the Dictionary” – Olive, Company

“Pandemonium” – Chip, Olive, Mitch, Company

“I’m Not That Smart” – Leaf

“Magic Foot” – William, Company

“Pandemonium” (Reprise) – Mitch Company

“My Favorite Moment of the Bee” (Reprise) – Rona

“Prayer of the Comfort Counselor” – Mitch, Company

Act II

“My Unfortunate Erection (Chip’s Lament)” – Chip

“Woe is Me” – Logainne, Carl Dad, Dan Dad, Company

“Spelling Montage” – Panch, Spellers

“I’m Not That Smart” (Reprise) – Leaf

“I Speak Six Languages” – Marcy, Company

“Jesus” – Marcy, Company

“The I Love You Song” – Olive, Olive’s Mom, Olive’s Dad

“Woe is Me” (Reprise) – Logainne, Mitch

“My Favorite Moment of the Bee” (Reprise 2) – Rona

“Second” – William, Olive, Company

“Olive and Barfée Das De Deux” – Company

“Finale” – Company

“The Last Goodbye” – Company

***

NEXT: “Mamma Mia!” 11 performances Sept. 29-Oct. 17.

THE VENUE: Broadway Theatre is a 154-seat (in normal times), 3,000-square-foot facility at 123 S. Broadway on the east side of the Fox River in De Pere. The building started life as the Majestic Theatre sometime around 1930. The space is essentially a “black box” performance space that is adjusted to the needs of a specific production. The rectangular space includes a high, arcing ceiling consisting primarily of its original patterned tin, painted white, and a laminate dark brown floor. The stage is set on a long leg of the space. The stage has an angled front with three steps to the top surface. The back wall in this production is exposed brick, with a door for exits/entrances. The general aura of the action is up close and personal. The theater is the home for performances and rehearsals of the youth Birder Studio of Performing Arts and adult Birder Players, and it is another option for other endeavors of entertainment.

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