By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Feb 12, 2020 at 7:59 PM

It’s important to get a good night’s sleep before you go see "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," running through Feb. 23 at the Skylight Music Theatre. Take some deep breaths as you take your seat and try to stay calm. After all, you’re all winners just for making it this far. There can only be one speller left standing, and if it’s not you this year, well, maybe it’ll be next year. Or maybe you’ll realize that there are more important things than a shiny gold trophy and knowing the correct spelling of every exotic rodent in the dictionary. 

The fact that my heart raced and my face flushed each time a new word was announced was due to my own spelling bee flashbacks. (The word I eventually misspelled in fifth grade was "romanticism.") It was also a testament to how quickly and completely the audience is drawn into the drama surrounding a motley crew of teens, as they compete for the title of spelling bee champ. The fact that the entire opening night audience couldn’t stop laughing over the course of the two-hour show also speaks to the show’s silly, awkward appeal. Directed and choreographed with exceptional creativity and energy by Brian Cowing, this wacky combination of heartwarming musical, crass adolescent comedy and interactive improv show gets a perfect score from the judges.

Set in a quintessential school gym, cleverly designed to appear like a much larger space, the bee unfolds on creaky risers, under a basketball hoop with the school colors and inspirational posters on the walls, and the ominous climbing rope pulled off to the side. (These and lots more gym class props come into delightful use during the song "Pandemonium.") Two spelling bee proctors take their places at a decorated folding table, looking over lists of words like "strabismus," "vulpine," "phylactery" and "capybara." Those are put into sentences by the physically imposing and slightly off-balance vice principal Doug Panch (a deadpan Robby McGhee). Bizarre color commentary is provided by saccharine local realtor and bee alum Rona Peretti (Samantha Sostarich, complete with the fake smile of a beauty pageant contestant).

In addition to four members of the audience who are pulled onstage to test their spelling ability, the contestants are played expertly a mix of local and regional performers. As Skylight Artistic Director Michael Unger comments in the program notes, casting great actors makes a director’s job much easier, and it feels like Cowing hit the jackpot here.

The horny boy scout Chip (Yando Lopez) comes off as the most normal of the group. A confident spelling bee contestant who won the title last year, he is distracted by very normal but inconvenient sexual urges and bounces out of the competition early. Bitter that his brain was momentarily overruled by another organ, Lopez opens the second act with the plaintive "Chip’s Lament," delivered with such earnestness that it almost feels wrong to laugh at such a cringeworthy, funny song.

As the practically perfect Asian American girl Marcy Park, Kendyl Ito is a tiny powerhouse. With steely eyes and a laser focus, she marches through the majority of the show with the seriousness of a nuclear scientist. During her brilliantly choreographed bio-song "I Speak Six Languages," Ito manages to belt out her song, perform gymnastics and ribbon dancing, play the piano, scratch records as a DJ, do martial arts and more in her one-woman decathlon of impressive accomplishments. After an unexpected conference with a divine power, her thousand watt smile of relief lights up the stage.

The whimsical recluse Olive (Amanda Rodriguez), a pink spectacled slip of a girl with a huge voice, has the saddest story arc by far. Her emotionally distant, preoccupied father can’t make it to the bee, and neither can her mother, who is currently trying to "find herself" on an ashram in India. Left without any support, or even the money for the contest entry fee, Rodriguez pours her entire being into Olive’s devastating "The I Love You Song." 

Kaylee Annable is the perky, desperate-to-please Logainne, who’s being raised by two dads. The character’s perseverance is as remarkable as Annable’s insertion of a consistent speech impediment into all her lines. Though all the contestants feel some pressure to succeed, Logainne is the one who seems about to crack as her achievements lead to both heightened expectations and persistent parenting squabbles between her two dads.

Ryan Stajmiger is mesmerizing as Leaf Coneybear, the eccentric homeschooled kid who struggles to stand out in a large family full of geniuses. Sporting safety helmet, a cape fashioned from a binkey and colorful patches that run up the length of his baggy jeans, he is proudly self-styled. Stajmiger’s bright eyes and smile that lingers just below the surface give this misfit kid a profound sense of awe that’s eventually coupled with confidence. His cross-eyed spelling technique, which resembles an alien possession, is as funny as it is endearing, and he shines in his solo, "I’m Not That Smart." The actor is equally adept as Logainne’s type-A dad, who’s hell bent on her winning the competition.

And as William Barfee, who uses his "magic foot" to spell words, James Carrington is the master of the snide comment (I know!), the condescending gesture and the righteous indignation. (It’s pronounced Bar-FAY!) His special spelling bee shoes steal the spotlight in "Magic Foot," with every cast member using glowing pairs of identical shoes in a brilliant dance sequence reminiscent of an Esther Williams water ballet. The fact that he finds a friend at the bee is all the more touching, since he begins the show as such a snot.

In addition to the nerdy word kids, a chair is reserved along the back wall of the gym for the gruff Mitch Mahoney (a scene-stealing Shawn Holmes) who acts as a "comfort counselor" to fulfill the community service requirement of his parole. At first incongruous and then strangely touching, he offers each eliminated contestant a hug and a juice box as they exit the stage. Holmes shows off his incredible vocal power and dexterity in the "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor," and his knack for quick changes as he switches character to the more emotionally available of Logainne’s two dads.

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" debuted on Broadway in 2005 with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Rachel Sheinkin. Since then, it has toured the country, allowing each venue to customize parts of the show to keep them timely. In this iteration, there are mercifully few "Wisconsin cheese" jokes, but there is a nice monologue ripped from the headlines about the British royal scandal "Megxit." 

Overall "Spelling Bee" succeeds in both straightforward and unexpected places – it’s an exuberant, comedic look at kids under enormous stress, their complicated family dynamics and the sheer awkwardness of being a brainy young teen. It also celebrates the joy several students find when they realize that winning is not the most important thing.