ST. PETERSBURG — With some fresh jokes, a few rambunctious performances and an open air playground setting, American Stage in the Park offers a fun-spirited outdoor production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
“I’ve never been to an outdoor gymnasium,” one of the high school competitors says to another, acknowledging the setting at Demens Landing, where patrons watch the show from chairs or blankets on the lawn.
The Tony-winning musical is full of charm and humor as it depicts a group of misfit young people competing for a trophy and a chance to compete at the national spelling bee. Each one has issues to deal with, from the onset of puberty or parents who put too much pressure on them to succeed. These amped-up students reveal that they’re really just kids as they win you over before a champion is crowned.
For those who have seen the musical before, there is a point of diminishing returns when you remember the spelling words or exactly what’s going to happen next, but Steven Flaa’s production keeps things up to date with jokes that touch on everything from North Korea’s nuclear build-up to Justin Bieber’s recent visit to the Anne Frank House.
And there’s always the injection of new blood with four audience members invited to join the cast on stage. At Sunday’s performance, one of them was an acting apprentice from Florida Studio Theatre, cheered on by colleagues from the theater.
Even though Tom Hansen’s two-story brick-walled gymnasium set is large and the sky provides its own kind of covering, Flaa does achieve an unexpected level of intimacy in the production. It also moves a bit slow at times and the insertion of an intermission doesn’t help the pacing.
The cast includes a lovely performance by Alison Burns as Olive Ostrovsky, a sweet young girl who sings an ode to the dictionary with its indented tabs. She’s an outsider, left behind by a mother on a spiritual quest and a father who doesn’t know how to deal with her.
Caitlin Longstreet, a familiar presence in Sarasota area theaters, makes an impressive American Stage debut, as the lisping, youngest competitor Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre, the socially active and progressive daughter of two demanding gay fathers.
The show also features a fun, slightly biting performance by Tampa Bay area mainstay Matthew McGee as Douglas Panch, an assistant principal who provides comical definitions and sentence usage for the words as he tries to maintain some composure.
The others in the cast, some veterans of past park shows, underwhelm or overreach at times, but convey the nature of their characters. They include Laura Hodos, as the strong-voiced hostess and former champ Rona Lisa Peretti, Dick Baker as Chip Tolentino and Nick Cearley as Leaf Coneybear.
Despite some drawbacks, it’s a fun show for the park setting, a perfect backdrop to a picnic and gathering with friends.
THE 25TH ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE
Music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin, conceived by Rebecca Feldman. Directed and choreographed by Steven Flaa. Reviewed April 28, American Stage in the Park. Through May 26. Demens Landing, 1st Ave., South and Bayshore Boulevard, Southeast, St. Petersburg. Tickets are $15-$29. For more information: (727) 823-7529; americanstage.org