The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee hits the stage

This semester’s musical made its debut at the Pablo Center

Skyler Schad

More stories from Skyler Schad

If you’re asking me
October 4, 2023

Photo by Gracie Kromke

Oct. 14th marked the opening day of the UW-Eau Claire musical, which aims to bring audience members right back to middle school.

UW-Eau Claire’s theatre department students and faculty released “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” to the public this past weekend, kicking off with three shows. The show is being held at the Pablo Center in downtown Eau Claire.

The director of the musical, Elizabeth Tanner, an acting instructor at UW-Eau Claire, wanted to make this production of the “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” different from any other.

“Traditionally, productions of this musical have fallen into having the actors or actresses play caricatures of middle school students, where there’s no truth or realism, and I wanted to avoid that,” Tanner said.

Tanner explained the first thing she had her cast do was bring in a middle school photo of themselves and talk to each other as a group to share stories of their middle-school selves.

“The one theme that was consistent in the cast was that they had this real sense of belonging one day, and not knowing if they belonged the next,” Tanner said, “which is written in the script.”

Tanner said she found it important that her cast tapped into this feeling while playing their characters, and she challenged them to “keep it real.”

“We’re seeing college students get into their middle-school age range and play the truth onstage,” Tanner said.

Gracie Kromke, a first-year music vocal performance student, played Olive Ostrovsky in the musical.

“My favorite part about doing musicals is doing what I love,” Kromke said. “It makes me the happiest in the whole world, and it brings me the most joy. It feels like my purpose in life.”

Kromke has experience in other musical productions, such as “Into the Woods” and “Newsies,” but this was her first show at UW-Eau Claire, and she loved every part of the experience.

“The community of people is so close-knit, and there’s good people who are passionate about what we do,” Kromke said. “They’re just inspiring people because everyone has their own unique take on their character, and we all love what we do.”

Kromke said that the cast has made a lot of good memories together during the process of bringing the musical together.

“We have a group chat, and after rehearsal, Emily Afdahl would create memes based on something that happened in rehearsal and send it to the group chat,” Kromke said. “It would make everyone’s night, and I would always be dying laughing.”

Kromke said the cast practiced for three hours a night Monday through Friday for the past five weeks. She said the rehearsals at the Pablo were the most important rehearsals, with the limited time in the performance space.

“Something that makes me unique is that I love the rehearsal process. If you don’t enjoy the rehearsal process, you’re not doing the right thing,” Kromke said. “I love all of the hard work, and the learning and growth that happens.”

Quinn Wambeke, third-year musical theatre student, played William Barfee in the musical.

“It’s a community-based storytelling piece, and everyone’s important,” Wambeke said. “I think getting to figure out what your relationship is to each character on stage and getting to perform that every day is such a unique and fun experience.”

Wambeke said the cast wants everyone to be able to relate to the awkward middle-school experience while watching the show, but also realize that things do get better in the future after this stage in life.

Tanner, Kromke and Wambeke highlighted the faculty who helped their show come to life, including Dr. Ken Pereira (Music Director), Stephan K. Stone (Choreographer), Erin Hisey (Scenic Design), Greg Hofmann (Lighting Design), Amanda Profaizer (Costume Design) and the rest of the team.

The musical has four more upcoming shows: Oct. 19th, 20th and 21st at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 23rd at 1:30 p.m. Tickets are available for purchase at $18 for adults, $12 for youth and seniors and $8 for UW-Eau Claire students.

Schad can be reached at [email protected].