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Director says young actors very familiar with Dickens classic

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FARMINGTON — It's been more than 10 years since Linann Easley directed a stage production at San Juan College, where she serves as the director of the fine arts center.

That doesn't mean she doesn't take a hands-on role in many of the college's productions. In addition to performing her administrative duties of managing the facility, she often takes on backstage duties related to costuming.

Those tasks are more than enough to keep her busy. But this year, when it came time to mount the college's annual spring musical, Easley decided to bite off even more of a challenge.

"For some crazy reason, this year I decided I could do all those crazy things and direct the play," she said. "I'm a little tired."

Tired, but happy, she hastened to add.

"I'm having a great time. It's a fun show," she said Monday as she prepared for the final few days of rehearsal before her cast and crew raise the curtain this weekend on their production of the classic musical "Oliver!"

Her enjoyment has been enhanced by the fact that the play has several roles for younger actors, meaning Easley has had the opportunity to work with several child and teenage actors, something she rarely has had the chance to do in the past.

"Oliver!" is based on the Charles Dickens novel "Oliver Twist," and the play premiered in 1960 before the film version, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, came along in 1968. That made it a cultural mainstay among members of Easley's generation. But she was less sure how much familiarity many younger actors would have with it.

She needn't have worried.

"I was really surprised by the amount of kids who came and auditioned for me who really knew the story," she said. "But there were a lot of them who knew coming in exactly what part they wanted."

Easley said there was a time when there were probably too many productions of "Oliver!" being done, and that caused theater groups to shy away from it for several years out of a fear it had grown stale. That time is now over, she said.

And when Easley went looking for a production to mount that would allow the college's theater department to work with other groups in the community, she realized "Oliver!" was the answer.

"We haven't had a main stage production on the big stage (in the college's Henderson Fine Arts Center) in like six years," she said. "I thought it was time to do that again. Our theater program is growing quickly … and I wanted to do a larger project that would be a community-centered events."

"Oliver!" certainly meets that description. Nearly four dozen actors of all age ranges will appear on stage, and a full orchestra led by San Juan College music professor Teun Fetz will perform. That makes it a virtual blockbuster by San Juan College standards. Easley said her job as director was made easier by the partnership the school established for the production with the Connie Gotsch Arts Foundation and the Heather McGaughey Children's Theatre.

Easley considers "Oliver!" a good introduction to musicals — a theatrical genre that was struggling earlier this century — for children. Though she recalled seeing and enjoying the film version when she was a kid, Easley's tastes changed as she grew older.

"When I first started studying theater, I was much more of a theater snob and just wanted to do serious dramatic roles," she said.

But as the genre has mounted a comeback in recent years, Easley has come to see its worth. And she thinks "Oliver!" is as timely as it has ever been.

"Politically, it's very relevant to what's going on right now," she said, though the musical largely keeps its message "tied up with a pretty bow."

That doesn't make it an easy play to stage. Easley acknowledged that the problem with directing musicals in general "is that there are so many moving parts. You begin by rehearsing with the piano, then the score, then the orchestra. And it all sounds so different. … You have to find time in rehearsal for vocal practice and choreography practice. … When you're doing straight drama, it's more simple."

"Oliver" will be presented at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday in the Performance Hall of the Henderson Fine Arts Center on the college campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington. It also will be presented at 7 p.m. March 15 and 16, and at 2 p.m. March 17. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for students and seniors, and $8 for children 12 and younger. They can be purchased online at sanjuancollege.edu/silhouette. Call 505-566-3430.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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