‘Putnam’: playful, perfect pick-me-up

Regardless of my politics, I typically hang my head in disappointment when a play or musical digresses from its plot to unabashedly insert the director’s personal agenda.

But when said play or musical megaphones its message through the conduit of a lispy 9-year-old with two gay dads and a seething hatred for Donald Trump, I can’t help but crack a grin.

Last week, USI Theatre presented “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a musical comedy about a group of middle-school overachievers who take on the pressures of adolescence through song.

Despite the occasional emotionless line delivery and a couple moments of jarring overreacting, the cast did a wonderful job of serving up hearty laughs and engaging the audience in its well-paced and heartwarming adventure.

By inserting members of the audience into the show as bee contestants, a level of spontaneity and improv was introduced. As a strictly observant audience member, I felt like I was attending the spelling bee.

Several times, the characters address members directly in their seats.

Alec Willis, who played three characters in the show (contestant Chip Tolentino, one of the “gay dads,” and a short, slightly more Guatemalan version of Jesus Christ), became erect at the sight of one audience woman he named “Marigold.”

While Willis’ acting chops were not up to par with the rest of the cast, he managed to roll the audience with laughter. His powerful vocals were also impressive, even as he belted out about his erection.

Emily March played Logainne (the Trump hater), and Nick Smith played William Barfee, an allergy-prone know-it-all with a magic spelling foot.

Both had a firm grasp on their characters’ intricacies and conveyed them consistently throughout.

Briana Weaver played the uptight and robotic Marcy Park. Weaver was a little flat in her character portrayal, but wowwed the audience with a dance-heavy solo that drew a large applause.

Maggie Browne was lovable and relatable in her role as the vulnerable Olive Ostrovsky. Browne’s improvision was colorful and genuine and as Ostrovsky, she tugged at heartstrings while she yearned for her parents’ presence at the bee.

As a frequent USI Theatre attendee, I have seen many actors come and go, shine and fizzle, impress and, rarely, appall. I will graduate next week, and therefore, this is my last chance to share my thoughts on a production for whoever may want to read them.

That is why I am elated Enjoli Drake and Craig Belwood had roles in the musical. I have seen them in their various portrayals through the years and they are my two favorite USI performers.

Belwood had me tearing up with laughter as the eclectically-dressed Leaf Coneybear. He was the epitome of random childhood as he buzzed around the stage in his superhero cape and spelled his words with a sock puppet. He even managed so make me tear up with sadness at one point.

Drake played grumpy Mitch Mahoney, an ex con helping out the bee as part of his community service, who develops a soft spot for supporting children during their losses. She is hilarious and spunky and carries drag comfortably.

The acting wasn’t always on point, but the whole cast melded together in a beautiful mess of fun and pandemonium. Watching them have such a good time acting off one another made my last USI Theatre review that much more memorable.

Finally, I’d like to congratulate director Eric Altheide on his consistent jobs-well-done. “Putnam” was exactly what it needed to be: playful, surprisingly touching and a perfect end-of-year pick me up.