Few play casts have to cancel their opening-night performance because of an oil refinery fire. It is certainly impossible for "the show to go on" when nearly the entire town is evacuated.
Director Jeffrey Madison had his musical cast of the University of Wisconsin-Superior's "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" ready to hit the stage running on Saturday night with an energetic and funny performance that charmed the audience.
The simple premise is a spelling bee taking place in the Putnam Middle School gymnasium with the play audience becoming the Bee audience. Sue Wedan's towering realistic gym set, complete with bleachers, basketball hoops and painted in the Putnam colors of green and yellow, is a perfect locale for the Bee's evening of preposterous shenanigans.
The tone is established before the show even starts with the team name, the Putnam Peacocks, emblazoned on the set along with the motto, "The Home of the Fighting Cocks."
Six quirky finalists are the heart of the show, with the college-age student cast channeling their wildest middle school behaviors with spot-on physicalities, hilarious interactions and Paige Kohler's cute choreography.
The colorfully named spelling sextet includes Olive Ostrovsky (Aleah Maki), William Morris Barfée (Josh Smith), Leaf Coneybear (Adam LaVine), Charlito "Chip" Tolentino (Chandler Oja), Logainne Schwartzandgrubiennaire (Taylor Jones), and Marcy Park (Savannah Kaufenberg).
They are joined onstage for the first part of the show by four audience volunteers who also gamely participate as finalist spellers. To the delight of the audience, the plucky volunteers do their best with the ridiculously hard words, as the Bee starts to go off the rails and hilarity ensues.
The standout performer of the spellers is Josh Smith as the ultimate nerd, William Morris Barfée, who has the strange technique of spelling a word out with his "magic foot" first. Smith's gyrations to spell and his nasal delivery (due to the character's "mucus-membrane disorder") are hysterically funny.
Pianist Beth Sobczak and percussionist Johnathan Erickson provide a strong underscore for the show's musical numbers. With a mix of cartoony full-company songs and some wistful tunes that often provide biographical background of the contestants, the musical score by William Finn enhances the storytelling.
LaVine's adorable turn as Leaf Conybear is highlighted in his bittersweet solo "I'm Not Smart." The show's sad ballad, "The I Love You Song," powerfully sung by Olive (Maki), Olive's Mom (Kaufenberg) and Olive's dad (Oja), shows why Olive feels so alone because of her "missing in action" parents, never there when she needs them.
While the production sounds like it could be a fun one to bring the kiddos to, some mild swearing and adult moments such as Chip's lament, "My Unfortunate Erection," make the show PG-13.
Reminiscent of shows such as "Avenue Q," taking adult audience members back to their childhoods, "Spelling Bee" is a heartwarming reminder that what seems so earth-shatteringly important to us as kids can dissolve into funny memories after we grow up.
If You Go
What: "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"
Where: Manion Theatre in the Holden Fine and Applied Arts Center at UWS
When: May 4-5 at 7:30 p.m. and April 29 and May 6 at 2 p.m.
Tickets: At the door or by calling (715) 394-8380