Buzzing About “Spelling Bee”

It’s pandemonium! One actor takes a jazz hand to the face as they slide into the final position for a song called “Magic Foot,” but no one breaks. As guest director DJ Gray gives a couple actors notes, the others silently joke, trying to stretch a leg above their head better than the other or making faces. But even though the rehearsal space is full of a light spirit, everyone is focused.

“25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” aside from being a mouthful, is this year’s all-undergraduate spring musical at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. It’s a light-hearted one-act show, characterized by brightly colored sets and equally as colorful characters. The plot follows a spelling bee competition with flashbacks about the characters’ backgrounds.

To bring the show, which premiered on Broadway in April 2003, to the Claire Trevor Theatre, UCI enlisted the help of a guest director. DJ Gray, a UCI alumna, just so happened to work on the original Broadway production.

Gray completed her undergraduate degree in visual art at UC San Diego, but while there found her passion for theater. She auditioned for UCI’s master of fine arts program straight out of UCSD and was accepted.

“I started late in life, but I knew this is what I wanted to be my career,” Gray said. “It was all fate. I put all my eggs in one basket. This is the only school I applied for.”

While at UCI, Gray was introduced to the competitive world of theater. She remembers spending hours in Winifred Smith Hall crying through the struggle. But it all paid off. Her maturity in acting, singing and dancing grew and helped her significantly when she graduated. She spent her first six years after graduation working in California regional theaters before moving out to New York City to try making it on Broadway. Though her training is in acting, she somewhat effortlessly found herself involved in dance. Her first job in New York was on the very first Broadway production of “Spelling Bee” as an associate choreographer. From there, she also worked as a choreographer on “Xanadu.”

Something about “Spelling Bee” resonated with her and she found herself working on regional productions of it. She loves that the show always changes, thanks to the inclusion of spellers chosen from the audience but especially thanks to the way each actor makes the character they play their own. Since the actors are playing elementary school-aged children, there’s a natural tendency to play them as caricatures. Throughout the rehearsal process, Gray has been encouraging her actors to find the depth and personality in their roles, and different things come up for everyone.

“Many full circles completed, ‘The Spelling Bee’ is about kids coming of age and struggling through that,” Gray said. “Being a young artist here, even though the feelings are more mature, it’s still the same struggle. So it’s interesting seeing [the actors] struggle and remembering all the time here crying and struggling. I wanted the career so much.”

She studied musical theater under the production’s musical director Dennis Castellano, just like her current actors do now. Castellano is the head of the School of the Arts’ bachelor of fine arts program in musical theater, which is only three years old, but he’s been the musical director and a lecturer for 30 years. He received a graduate degree from UCI and graduated just as his advisor left the school. He took his job and has been here ever since, working on over 60 different musicals throughout his time as well as teaching musical-theater workshops in singing, dancing and musicianship. He also teaches the History of American Musical Theatre series.

Leading up to “Spelling Bee,” Castellano was responsible for teaching the actors the music and working with them. During rehearsals, he leads them through warm-ups and plays the accompanying piano. He’s also responsible for coordinating the orchestra.

But more than that, Castellano is the warm voice of encouragement, bringing the cast kumquats for snacks during one rehearsal and patiently working with them every step of the way, even outside of productions.

Aside from Gray and Castellano, UCI’s production of “Spelling Bee” is truly made by the cast. Each of the nine-person cast is showcased by distinctive quirks and songs. The cast’s strong vocals promise a great show as well. This show gives them the opportunity for improvisation and playing off the audience participants, as well as the vibe of the audience as a whole.

Compared to UCI Drama’s affection for experimental, dark productions, “Spelling Bee” is peppy and light. It’s a celebration of youthfulness and the young at heart. It’s the perfect choice for a spring musical. “Spelling Bee” provides audiences a great opportunity to support fellow students and be reminded that, while life can be chaotic, there is plenty of fun to be had.

“25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” opens May 27 at 8 p.m. in the Claire Trevor Theatre. Student tickets are $9 with an ID.