Actors sing, dance and spell at the annual spelling bee musical. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Guild Hall play transforms theatre experience into high-stakes spelling bee

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs until April 21

Mary Sloan is used to directing teenagers. Directing adults acting like teenagers, however, was something entirely different.

“It’s easier (with adults),” Sloan jokes the day of dress rehearsal for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. “If there’s drama backstage, I don’t see it.”

Sloan hadn’t originally planned to direct – she had planned to audition for an acting role in the Spelling Bee, which runs at the Guild Hall from April 5 to 21.

The musical, which was performed on Broadway for the first time in 2005, centres on a group of students as they compete in a small town spelling bee.

“It needed Mary,” says Angela Drainville, who plays host Rona Lisa Peretti. “The show needed her specifically. Just because it was so focused on kids, understanding and knowledge of kids at that age when they’re just about to emerge from childhood into adolescence where everybody’s really awkward.”

Sloan gained that awareness from more than 20 years working with students in the music, arts and dance program at Wood Street School (she’s retired now).

“And so she brought that incredible knowledge of what kids at that moment look like, move like, act like, sound like … I don’t know if anyone else could have done the same thing with that script,” says Drainville.

The script may be part of the reason Drainville, Sloan and James McCullough, who plays vice-principal Douglas Panch, had heard of the play, though none had seen it. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee was nominated for six 2005 Tony Awards, and won for best book.

There are elements to the script that Drainville, Sloan, McCullough say they have experience with, but overall, they say the play is unlike anything they’ve done before.

All have participated in musicals in the past. Still, they say the music in this play was full of particularly complicated harmonies and rhythms.

“From an audience perspective you’re going to see something and you’re going to think ‘wow that sounds really great’ and then from a performer’s perspective, we were like ‘wow, those are some really hard things that we’re doing,’” says Drainville. “It’s really difficult. And kudos to Scott Maynard, the musical director, for really being able to get the best out of everyone because he has been stretching us.”

Another interesting thing about the production was the number of new faces the auditions brought out.

Sloan, Drainville and McCullough have all worked in theatre for years.

Sloan’s first role in the Yukon in the 1990s was as Miss Hannigan in a production of Annie. Drainville, who moved here three years ago, has worked in theatre since she was a child. McCullough has been in a dozen local plays, mostly musicals, over the last 20 years, including playing the role of Brad in the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

They say they were surprised at January auditions to see people they didn’t recognize.

“Coming in and seeing people in auditions that you do not know, and then hearing them and going ‘wow they’re good, they’re really talented’ and then seeing the ones that are cast … and seeing them start to inhabit their roles and really flesh them out, it’s fantastic,” says McCullough.

That said, the cast is a little bit different every night. That’s because the show could potentially star you.

Half an hour before the play begins, the cast is out in the lobby, chatting with audience members, trying to convince them to “sign up” for the spelling bee. Once the play starts, four would-be participants are called onstage to take part in the bee alongside the actors.

It’s such a different kind of play, Drainville says, that if you’ve never been to the theatre before and you see this show, you’re going to leave a fan of theatre.

It’s also familiar though. The characters in the play are unique, but recognizable, says McCullough.

“There’s a lot of archetypes of kids that we’ll all recognize,” he says.

“Every teacher is going to recognize every kid in that show,” agrees Sloan.

“And kids will recognize the kinds of kids,” says McCullough. “Now of course they’re broad comedic characters, but they’re really there — every type.”

There are the kids with absentee parents, the kids who are being overparented, the quirky kids, and the perfectionists. As they compete, they share with the audience, largely in song, a little bit about what brought them to the bee. As the competition progresses, they share what they’ve learned, both the positives and negatives.

It’s a light, happy play, says Drainville.

“You’re going to come away feeling very entertained and uplifted.”

Performances take place at 8 p.m. each night. Tickets are $30. They are available online www.guildhall.ca or at Whitehorse Motors.

Contact Amy Kenny at amy.kenny@yukon-news.com

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