Mary Sloan was only vaguely aware of the 2005 smash Broadway musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, when she learned that the Guild Theatre’s artistic director, Brian Fidler, had picked it as this year’s season finale.
“When I first started reading it, I went, ‘I guess I kind of like it,’” the veteran Whitehorse actor/director said. She even spotted a role she might be able to tackle. Little did she know what role she would end up playing. Fidler had been having trouble finding a director, so when Sloan offered to take it on, he leapt at the opportunity. After all, she had already directed one Guild musical, The Rocky Horror Show, not to mention several student musicals during her 23 years teaching the Music Arts and Drama (MAD) program at the Wood Street Centre.
Her initial cautious response to the William Finn-Rachel Sheinkin show about a middle-school spelling competition quickly turned to enthusiasm.
“Now, I absolutely love it. I know people in Whitehorse who have seen it three or four times in other venues. It’s the kind of show that just keeps bringing you back. And it’s just such a heartwarming way to end the season.”
Inspired by the wildly-popular Scripps National Spelling Bee, the play’s premise is simple. Six young finalists in Putnam County’s annual bee are vying for a coveted berth at the national finals in Washington, D.C.
Two of them are already veterans of the national contest.
Chip Tolentino (played by Dustin Cook) represented Putnam County at last year’s finals, but finished in a disappointing 47th place. Marcy Park (Rebecca Whitcher) – a recent transfer to Putnam from a private girls’ school – was the 9th-place winner in Washington.
“Both Chip and Marcy are highly-motivated, highly-skilled individuals. Chip plays baseball and Marcy twirled baton and speaks seven languages. She’s one of those kids,” Sloan said.
A homeschooled kid named Leaf Coneybear (James McGeragle) had placed third at the regional level, but made it to the county final by a fluke when the top two couldn’t attend.
“He comes there thinking he’s not smart, but he’s sure excited to be at this spelling bee, because he never thought he would end up there.”
The youngest contestant, Logaine SchwartzandGrubbeniere (Elyssia Sasaki), is “an 8-year-old student activist” with two overbearing dads (hence the welded surname).
William Barfee (Kyle MacDonald) – “kind of a bully and obnoxious” – probably would have won last year, but was disqualified for having candy backstage during the competition.
The final contestant is Olive Ostrovsky (Carly Bohman), who considers the dictionary her best friend, and is the only one without parents in the audience. Her businessman father is too busy, and her mother is on a yoga retreat in India.
“Each child comes with his or her own really strong reason for needing to be at this spelling bee. That’s where the beauty of this play comes in, when you see these kids, and this is their dream, this is their passion,” Sloan says.
Besides the six student contestants (all played by adults 25 years old and up), there are three equally quirky adults in the cast. Rona Lisa Paretti (played by Angela Drainville) is a real estate agent who won the 3rd annual Putnam County event years ago, and is now in charge of things.
Her assistant is Doug Panch (James McCullough), a school vice principal and spelling bee habitué who is back after a five-year absence, following a “bizarre nervous breakdown that caused him to do something to get kicked out of the spelling bee.”
Finally, there is Mitch Mahoney (Fiona Azizai), a parolee who acts as “comfort counsellor” to the losing contestants as part of her mandatory community service.
A key element that has helped make the musical so popular around the world is that every show also includes four volunteer audience members who also participate in the competition.
“They’re told, simply, ‘Don’t act; just get up to spell. You can ask for a definition and ask for the word to be used in a sentence, and spell the word to the best of your ability.’”
Like the scripted characters, each volunteer either spells a word right and gets to stay onstage, or spells it wrong and goes back to rejoin the audience.
“Some of the words for them are easy, some of them are difficult, and some of them are absolutely impossible.”
While the show is heartwarming and funny, Sloan says it also has a strain of reality.
“The kids’ lives are not all sunshine and light. They’ve got their own baggage. There’s one song in particular that I think is going to really hit people in the hearts,” she said.
The Guild production is being choreographed by Dale Cooper, with Scott Maynard as music director.
“He’s got those guys singing like a church choir. They’re amazing.”
Sloan is especially proud of how set designer Shauna Jones has transformed the Guild’s intimate space into a bright, airy school gymnasium, complete with basketball hoop and the Putnam Beagles mascot (designed by David Sloan) painted at mid-court.
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs from April 5 to April 21. For more information, go to www.guildhall.ca.