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Davis, California

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

S-p-e-l-l-i-n-g success in musical theatre

For some aspiring actors and theatre enthusiasts, the defining moment of success is making it onto the big Broadway stage. It’s a new and invigorating kind of challenge – combining music with dialogue, humor with drama and building brilliant personalities on a single melody.

Luckily for students, the UC Davis Department of Theatre and Dance has created a summer intensive program that allows students to learn about the complexities of musical theatre. The end result leads up to a full production of the Tony Award-winning musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Like planting a seed and watching it grow into its full potential, professors and industry professionals Mindy Cooper, Thomas Munn and Timothy Orr oversee the entire process. The classes offered include Approaches to Theatre Design instructed by Thomas Munn, Dance and Movement Studio instructed by Mindy Cooper and Advanced Acting, Comedy, Acting in Musical Theatre instructed by Timothy Orr.

“Our intention was to give students an experience similar to being part of a repertory company,” said Orr. “Company members work in a variety of departments and learn the full measure of running a theatre company.  Their summer work ultimately culminates into a full production, largely achieved through their hard work. It’s turned out to be a great experience. I’m learning plenty as well – bonus!”

To grasp students’ well-roundness and full potential in the theatre environment, Orr, Munn and Cooper are constantly refining the process. A typical day for students begins with studio work, acting and singing exercises, then fine-tuning of the previous day’s rehearsal. After a short lunch break, students move to the theatre and spend the afternoon rehearsing with Cooper, the production’s director, and working on movement, musicality, scene work and staging.

However, to make sure the end result is flawless, Orr, Munn and Cooper work collectively to improve the daily process.

“[We’re] constantly refining, constantly improving,” said Orr. “It’s exhausting for everyone but that’s the business.  The great part is that the rehearsals keep feeding the classroom exercises, and vice versa. I don’t know of another program that works this way but it’s been very effective.”

What makes this program especially unique is that the courses are open to the public and students who are not necessarily Dramatic Arts majors. Because of a demand from theatre students for more musical theatre shows, this is the first year this program has been in effect. Wendy Mumolo, who plays the character Logainne Schwartzandgrubenierre in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is actually a graduating psychology major.

“The process has been so smoot,.” said Mumolo. “You couldn’t ask for a better way to put up a show. We had a week of class to get to know each other and feel out how everybody worked before we even auditioned, so by the time auditions actually rolled around we’d created this wonderfully comfortable, safe environment.”

The summer intensive classes focuses on the professional skills needed in musical theatre such as improvisation, sight-singing, score analysis, scenic research and more. For seven weeks, from Aug. 2 to Sept. 9, the professional training process prepares and refines student’s capabilities to better fit musical theatre.

Taking a hands-on application of those skills learned, from Sept. 13 to Sept. 26 students will rehearse and perform a professional production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, originally conceived by Rebecca Feldman with music and lyrics by William Flinn, is a heart-warming and quirky musical comedy about a spelling bee which takes place at Putnam Valley Middle School. Centering around six adolescents, three grown-ups, and plenty more pubescent misfits, the musical has been embraced by audiences around the country. This production will be directed by Mindy Cooper.

It’s hard work from start to spectacular finish.

“These classes are the best of both worlds,” said Alison Sundstrom, a second year dramatic arts major. “We get to explore and learn about the process of acting through rehearsals and actual performance. I think a lot of people think that musical theater is a frivolous pursuit when they look at it from the outside. Yet, if they took a class from Mindy or Tim they would see how much work and depth there is in it; how much lies behind the song and dance numbers; how much relates to every one of us as a human being.”

The show runs Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 16 to 18 and Sept. 23 to 25 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 19 and 26 at 2 p.m. in the Main Theatre. For more information, visit theatredance.ucdavis.edu.

UYEN CAO can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

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