For over two months, Colchester High School students have been studying their dictionaries diligently in preparation for the upcoming spelling bee.
But this is no ordinary bee.
This weekend, CHS will be performing its rendition of the Broadway musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The comedic show follows the stories of six middle-schoolers competing in a spelling bee, using flashbacks to illustrate each character’s journey to the competition.
Director and choreographer Victor Tormand said he chose the Tony award-winning musical for this year’s show because of its modern flair, challenging music and non-traditional plot line. He added it’s been a fun change for students to play characters similar to themselves, rather than adults or children like they do in many theatrical performances.
“They’re playing kids that are four or five years younger than them, and I think some of those issues are relatable to them,” Tormand said. “It’s something they went through just a few years ago, and I think it’s easy for them to relate to who the characters are.”
Tormand is new to the Colchester Theater Company this year, hailing from California where he taught drama at a charter school in San Francisco. When asked about differences between theater programs in the two states, Tormand said he’s impressed with the CHS students’ advanced musical abilities and the town’s overall engagement with the arts.
“I appreciate the commitment that the kids have [here]; there seems to be a culture of valuing music especially,” he remarked. “It seems like everywhere I go in Vermont, schools … really value music education.”
And committed they are: Tormand said students rehearsed at least three hours a day, five days a week for over two months in preparation for Thursday’s opening night.
CHS senior Keegan Davis plays Logainne “Schwarzy” Schwartzandgrubenierre, the youngest contestant in the bee, who dons pigtails and speaks with a lisp. Davis said the most challenging part of preparing for the role was learning how to sing with that lisp, something she hadn’t done before.
“There’s no way I’m going to pull this off,” Davis said, recalling her first thought as she started to learn her character. But after a lot of practice listening to recordings over and over, she said she’s ready to perform.
“It’s my last show, I’m excited to put on one great final performance,” she said.
While some of the cast, like Davis, have been involved with the Colchester theater program all four years of high school, others have just begun. Senior Josh Porter joined the company for the first time this year, saying he just “got sick of football.”
Porter plays Vice Principal Douglas Panch, the official word pronouncer for the spelling bee. Porter said although theater is much different from football and was a little overwhelming to start, the best part is meeting people he might never have otherwise known and become friends with at school.
Students make up the majority of the production. Apart from himself, the music director and an adult keyboard player, Tormand said the students run the show. In addition to acting on stage, students are involved in all parts of the production, including sound, lights, costumes and the pit band, he said.
Sophomore Molly Luter is part of the lighting crew for the musical. She said last year she wanted to get involved with the theater program but not necessarily as an actor.
“I’ve always been really interested in behind the scenes,” she explained. “I was introduced to lights, and I immediately fell in love with it.”
CHS has no in-school theater classes, so students use their own time to learn skills necessary for the show. Luter said she learned lighting basics by shadowing a senior last year and has studied training videos provided by the show’s creators.
Luter said she’s excited to see how the audience reacts to the show.
“When you see everyone on stage and everyone’s lit up, and people are like, ‘That looks cool,’ it’s like, I did that,’” she said.
Tormand is proud of the students’ hard work, and he’s excited to finally have an audience for the show. He noted the production has a PG-13 rating due to some adult content, but there is no harsh language in the script.
Shows run Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m. as well as 2 p.m. on Saturday at the Colchester High School Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $5 for students and $10 for adults at the door.