Tackling the ABCs of the big spelling bee

Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary's musical comedy looks at the lighter side of the ultimate war of words.

The cast of Lord Tweedsmuir's latest production

The cast of Lord Tweedsmuir's latest production

As anyone who has watched the Scripps National Spelling Bee on TV might have suspected, a spelling bee contains incredibly fertile ingredients for a successful musical comedy.

There’s inherent drama in the material, along with humour, tension, and poignant backstories galore.

Cast and crew at Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary are putting the final touches on this year’s production, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, taking the stage next week for three public performances.

The Tony award-winning musical comedy follows a group of overachieving outsiders vying for the spelling championships of a lifetime – the national spelling bee in Washington, D.C.

The cast – chosen through an open audition process, with rehearsals taking place after school – includes actors in Grade 8 to Grade 12.

While most high school musicals require its teenaged stars to portray characters who are years, sometimes decades, older than themselves, it was the reverse for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Fast says his cast is playing kids aged 10 and 11 – the same age of spelling bee competitors that are the real-life inspiration for the  show.

“They have to act ‘down’, below their ages, but we don’t overplay that too much,” says Fast, who’s joined by vocal director Sher Bennett, who’s responsible for choreography and vocals, and musical director Ron Rutley, who handles the live orchestra.

Sets and staging for the show is relatively simple, because the action takes place in a school gymnasium, requiring a minimal set of chairs and a trophy table, plus props like a “No Bully Zone” sign and a state flag.

“It’s very clearly an American show,” he says. “I didn’t try to Canadianize it.”

The costume budget didn’t exactly break the bank, either. Students improvised their own costumes after watching real spelling bee competitions on YouTube.

“A lot of [the actors] are real keeners and they went online last fall and started watching,” Fast says.

There’s a few adult-aged roles, too, including the “Comfort Counsellor,” a woman who’s doing her community service by order of the courts, offering juice boxes to angst-ridden competitors.

The Broadway version featured six cast members who recruited four audience members before each show to act as guest spellers on stage.

“We, however, wanted to cast as many kids as possible,” says Fast. “So we casted our ‘audience members’ instead with four more student actors.”

Surprisingly, that decision didn’t present any major obstacles when it came to revising the script.

Besides, the show features plenty of songs, allowing the “audience” cast members to join in with minimal script edits.

“So for us, basically, the audience members join in all the singing numbers and they don’t have any speaking roles except when they go to the microphone and get eliminated.”

Lord Tweedsmuir’s extended timetable – introduced two years ago to accommodate more students – has presented some rehearsal issues for Putnam County, which take place after school.

But nonetheless it feels good to sink their artistic teeth into a full-length production.

Last year, due to the threatened teachers’ job action in B.C., the school presented a series of evenings of one-act plays shows instead, which turned out really well. Fast says there was just one cancellation – the final show.

The production will be staged for elementary schools on Monday, April 29, along with three evening performances for the public on April 30, May 2 and May 3.

– Tickets are $7 for adults and $5 for students. They’re available at the school’s main office and will be for sale at the door. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and the show is at 7 p.m.

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