Canadian Idol is our Theatre Idol

A Visit with Melissa O’Neil

Melissa ONeil

Melissa O’Neil was sitting in her new apartment this week, surrounded by boxes waiting to be unpacked, when she took time out to talk. Having just wrapped up a run of Dance Legends at Huron Country Playhouse, she’s back in Toronto, moving into a new place. So what’s on her agenda right now? Well, she’s talking about taking some classes – acting, dancing, and maybe some exercise and spin classes.

And then she’ll be ready for her upcoming role in Ross Petty’s Christmas Pantomime at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. Melissa is playing the lead role of Belle in Beauty and the Beast. But don’t go expecting to see the Disneyfied version: This will be the Pettified version where the beast will be worse than your average beast, more like a vampire! Beauty and the Beast runs from November 25 to January 2.

Well-known for winning Season 3 of Canadian Idol in 2005, Melissa has been performing ever since. A born singer, she was organizing kindergarten classmates into a trio, singing Frere Jacques for her teacher. In high school she was in the musicals West Side Story and Fame. However, when the Canadian Idol auditions came to her hometown, Calgary, she wasn’t even considering it. It just wasn’t something she’d thought about.

But like many Calgary families, the O’Neils are big fans of the Flames. However, high ticket prices prevented them from attending games, or even getting inside the Pengrowth Saddledome, for that matter. So going to a Canadian Idol audition would give Melissa and her Dad the chance to spend a night inside the Saddledome. Hopefuls lining up overnight were allowed to camp out, so Dad went along with Melissa and her friend. “We were more excited about seeing the Saddledome than we were about singing for Canadian Idol,” she says.

To get into the line-up in time, Melissa had to go directly to the Saddledome from her basketball practise. “I was wearing old sweats, a hoodie and a toque,” explaining that she was looking her worst right after coming off the courts with no time for a shower. Then they slept in the arena, getting up the next morning for the audition. “I went into the washroom, and I looked awful. And here were all these girls, primping, with curling irons, putting on make-up, changing into dresses and heels,” Melissa says. “We went up to sing in groups of 5, and I was the only one who looked so bad.”

She went through the various levels, and was asked back to do more auditions. The organizers told her that she had to wear the very same outfit every time – presumably because they were filming it and they wanted it to be able to cut in clips from different stages, making it look like it was all at the same time. So she had to continue wearing her grubby clothes. Finally she made it to the celebrity judges and she was in. She sang, “If I ain’t got you” (Alicia Keys) and “On My Own” (from Les Miz) – “that would be my dream role,” she interjects.

 She continued on with Canadian Idol – occasionally ending up in the bottom three, but bouncing back each week, and finally, at age 16, she became the first female Canadian Idol (Kalan Porter and Ryan Malcolm were the previous winners). Runners up to Melissa were Rex Goudie and Aaron Walpole (see my chat with Aaron under Mary’s Musings.)

Before she knew it, she was recording an album, and then touring. Throughout the whirlwind, she and Rex were dating – they had started spending time together early in Canadian Idol. In fact, their relationship lasted over two years. “We had both relocated to Toronto – I was from Alberta, he was from Newfoundland – and we didn’t know anyone else in this huge city,” Melissa says, “We were young, once we got our footing, we grew up, and then broke up.” Melissa and Rex stay in touch – he’s busy making a new record, she says.

Melissa moved into professional theatre when she had a call to audition for Dirty Dancing. She was with the show for its 18th month run. From there, she came to Drayton Entertainment, appearing as Gabriella in High School Musical at the St. Jacobs Country Playhouse and the King’s Wharf Theatre in Penetanguishene, and then she was in Country Legends, rounding out the summer of 2009.

She was thrilled to go home to Calgary to be in British Invasion at Stage West last winter. “I miss my family. I really miss my parents and my brother Colin; he’s the coolest man I know,” she says. Colin is 15 and Melissa wishes she could see more of him playing basketball. So going home to be in a production was a really nice fit.

This spring she retuned to her role in High School Musical in St. Jacobs, and then Huron Country Playhouse in Grand Bend. After that she was the vocalist in the hit production of Dance Legends, also in Grand Bend.

Melissa enjoys singing of all kinds – she won’t make a choice between musical theatre and being a singer. “It’s like an artist who paints in oil or acrylic – it’s just another form of the craft,” she says. But she adds, “I’m leaning toward theatre, because I love being part of a team that works together to make a good production,” she says, “I am constantly amazed by all the people I work with; I am pleasantly surprised and humbled by the people I meet in theatre.”

She gets that same team feeling from the eight-piece band she sings with, God Made Me Funky. She wants to keep all options open as a performer. “Having said that, I think there is some merit in focussing on something specific,” she adds. In preparation for future musical theatre roles, she is going to work on her dance.

“Being in Canadian Idol was an amazing experience. I can’t believe that it’s six years later and I’m here in Toronto with all the great jobs I’ve had, “ she says.

Our best wishes go to Melissa, as she prepares for her role as Belle. Break a leg!


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