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Putnam offers light-hearted approach to lyric theater

The spring lyric theater production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is a bit untraditional when compared to past campus productions of lauded operettas and intricate musicals like “Candide” and “Into the Woods.” But that does not mean that the quirky and modern one-act musical comedy will struggle to find resonance with a musically-adept college community like St. Olaf.

“We have a very capable team,” said co-director Denzel Belin ’15 before a weeknight rehearsal. “We have a lot of different backgrounds – music, theater, production – but we have enough faith in one another to challenge each other and explore the potentials this musical offers.”

“Besides, this show offers a lot of interesting truths that reflect well in a St. Olaf audience,” co-director Natalia Romero ’15 added. “These characters are all major caricatures but have small moments where they crack, where we can see their truth. We’re sort of like that as college students: seeminlgy perfect and afraid to show our flaws.”

“Putnam,” which is a completely student directed, acted and produced show, centers on a fictional spelling bee at Putnam Valley Middle School in which six ambitious adolescents Maddie Sabin ’17, Jordan Solei ’15, Jessica Lawdan ’15, Ashley Kershaw ’16, Gabe Coleman ’17 and Charlie Platt ’16 compete for the top prize under the guidance of three odd and delightful adults RJ Nunez ’16, Zach Jackson ’14 and Kat Middeldorp ’15. Throughout the bee, each of the contestants is pushed past their limits and forced to come to terms with some of the more intimate aspects of their lives.

Belin and Romero began discussing the potential for “Putnam” last summer, when they decided that they wanted to apply to direct the spring lyric theater production. Both have experience with directing and theater Belin, a theater major, has worked on “Albert Herring” and “Extremities,” and Romero, a music education major, worked on “In The Heights” last fall, and knew they wanted to pursue something more modern. Directors for the student-directed lyric theater spring production apply for the position with the music department in the fall and begin putting the show together early in the spring semester.

Over that time period, Belin and Romero have been able to really think about things like character development and musicality, care and precision that comes through in the final production, especially in the musical performances by Middeldorp and Jackson and committed characterization by Platt.

“I’ve been pulled more vocally here than I ever have before,” said Maddie Sabin ’17, who plays Olive Ostrovsky. “But I know that everyone here believes in our ability to put together a really amazing ensemble performance.”

One of the more interesting quirks of the show is that it requires the participation of four real audience members who are invited on to the stage to compete in the spelling bee alongside the six young characters. During my observation of the “Putnam” rehearsal, I was one such participant – called to the stage, asked to spell and create questions, sure, but also encouraged to dance and participate as if I were one of the characters in the actual musical. Whether it stems from persistent practice or an innate ease, the “Putnam” cast showed that they are both comfortable with and encouraging of the improvisational potential of such audience interaction. By the end of my time on stage, I was completely at ease and immersed in the experience, just as invested in my own chances of winning as I was in the other characters’.

“Audience participation adds another dimension of difficulty for our actors and immersion for our audience,” Belin said. “It allows us to showcase the sheer talent our cast really has.”

This unmistakable talent makes “Putnam” a must-see for musical theater fans, whether or not one is heavily invested in the more classic approach to lyric theater. A cohesive blend and complicated technique from extensively trained actors push “Putnam” into the same technical field as its more classic predecessors.

“Watching this show come together has been better than I had anticipated,” Romero said. “This cast pushes this show into something more amazing than I first knew was possible.”

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will be performed in Urness Recital Hall in Christiansen Hall of Music on May 9 at 7:30 p.m. and May 10 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. There are no formal tickets for the production, but seating will be on a first-come, first-served basis.