Drama alumna returns to campus for ‘Spelling Bee’

Undergraduate drama students present the Tony Award-winning musical comedy "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" at Claire Trevor Theater.

UC Irvine alumna DJ Gray has seen “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” grow from a quirky off-Broadway show to a critical and box office success beloved by audiences from San Francisco to South Korea.

An associate choreographer during the play’s original run at Circle in the Square Theater in New York, she will soon return to campus as director of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts production of the musical comedy.

“I consider it a full-circle experience,” says Gray, who in 2003 earned an M.F.A. in drama, with an emphasis in musical theater, at UCI. She was just starting her career when a friend asked her to work on “Spelling Bee.”

The Tony Award-winning play tells the story of a group of adolescent underdogs who compete in a provincial spelling bee and the ambitious adults who surround them. Brought to life by undergraduate drama students, it opens May 27 at the Claire Trevor Theatre and continues through June 4.

“It’s really about these six misfit kids who are fighting their way through adolescence and the pain and joy of growing up,” Gray says. “There’s something in each one of them that audience members can relate to.”

But theatergoers shouldn’t expect a literal reproduction of the Broadway version, she notes.

“We’ve made this show our own,” Gray says. “These actors bring their own quirky styles and expressions to the production. I was completely inspired by them.”