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Tired of having to sit far away from your friends during a musical? Of pre-recorded singing? Well, you’re in luck. This April, Eckerd College’s Theater Department will host its first unmasked musical after two years with the “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” 

As the title suggests, the musical will revolve around a spelling bee. The characters, all tweens, must compete against one another. The plot revolves around their struggles in figuring out how to exist in a world full of other equally talented peers.  The actors and actresses themselves must learn how to spell obscure words during rehearsals. 

Themes of friendship, pride and selflessness will be recurring as the children competing show off their talents. 

“The musical is about taking the thing that other people say you’re a freak and celebrating it,” Professor of Theatre Gavin Hawk said.

All the characters have different archetypes and are distinct from one another that the audience can find themselves relating to, such as politically-aware Logainne. 

During conversations before selecting the production, Hawk had brought the idea to his students. Cooper Hoeksema, first-year in the BFA Acting program, will portray Leaf Coneybear and Carl’s dad, and was involved in early conversations about the musical. He had collaborated with Hawk to discuss character development and staging. 

“It’s a time for the world to get together, laugh, have fun,” Hoeksema said. “But there are also deeper aspects people can relate to or see themselves in.”

Assistant Director, junior Soph Sawyer said, “I think the musical celebrates individuality and the importance of being true to yourself. Every character is so fun and so unique and they all find their own happy ending in one way or another.” 

Hawk had been contemplating a production that could be performed outdoors, as the last musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” had been performed. He chose a musical because he believed in its potential of being an outdoor musical whilst wanting to entertain the audience with something humorous. 

Alongside Eckerd College’s COVID-19 task force, the Theater Department stayed up to date with new health protocols. Hawk said he was excited when this production was cleared to be unmasked because it will allow the actors to enhance their performance. 

“Teaching was an interesting challenge as an acting teacher,” Hawk recalls his struggle during the pandemic. “Because the masks are an impediment for expression. You have to train the eyes, voice and body.”

Sawyer agreed that rehearsal has been much more enjoyable without having to wear masks because it is easier to sing, dance and show facial expressions.

“I just wanted something fun and light,” Hawk said. “So we could all take a moment to just laugh and be happy.” 

For the nine roles in the production, 30 students auditioned. Hawk notes how difficult it was to see so many talented students not receive roles. In the future, he plans to expand the cast for musicals to showcase more students’ talent. 

This musical in particular fits in with Eckerd’s message of embracing diversity and what makes us unique, according to Hawk and Hoeksema. 

The production will also have an element of surprise where volunteers from the audience will be called to stage.

“There’s an electric element to the show knowing audience members are on stage,” Hawk said. “The audience knows that anything can happen.”

The musical will play from April 6-9 at the Bininger Theater. Follow @eckerd_theater to stay up to date with the event.

Cast:

  • Sam Papier as Chip Tolentino/Jesus Christ

  • Lizah Dunbar as Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre

  • Cooper Hoeksema as Leaf Coneybear and Carl’s dad

  • Ryan Reed as William Barfée

  • Zoe Smith as Olive Ostrovsky

  • Karina Pomales as Rona Lisa Perett and Olive’s Mom

  • Emily Ferry as Marcy Park

  • Kian Debenham as Douglas Panch

  • Sean Crothers as Mitch Mahoney, Dan’s Dad and Olive’s Dad

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