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'Four Weddings and an Elvis' features mix of veterans, newcomers

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FARMINGTON — Melanie Leeson has been a fixture for Theater Ensemble Arts for the past several years, serving in a variety of capacities for the local theater company since 2012.

In all those years, her work was never the kind to attract a lot of public attention. She has served as a stage manager for several productions and as a member of the TEA board. Her contributions were important, but they weren't the kind to get her noticed by those who regularly attend the company's productions.

Leeson was fine with that, preferring to avoid the literal spotlight.

"I don't enjoy acting," she said matter of factly. "It's not my thing."

But when Leeson and other TEA board members were handed copies last year of the script to "Four Weddings and an Elvis," a comedy by Nancy Frick that will open the company's 23rd season this weekend, Leeson found the material so funny she couldn't help but laugh out loud. She felt something else, too — an undeniable tug to take her participation in the production a step further.

"Halfway through it, I was like, 'OK, I need to be involved in some way in this play,'" she said. "I was dying of laughter, and that was just from reading it — not even hearing anyone read it aloud."

Leeson will direct the production, making it the first time she has taken on such a major responsibility with one of the company's shows.

"I hadn't really given any thought to directing," she said before she picked up Frick's script. "I had always enjoyed being part of the behind-the-scenes process. But this seemed like the right script at the right time for me."

The TEA board presented her with the opportunity to lead the production, and Leeson jumped at it. As the production entered its final days of rehearsal earlier this week, she hardly sounded overwhelmed by the burden of leadership. In fact, she sounded positively buoyant about the experience of guiding her first show.

"It's been fabulous," she said. "We have a great cast, and it's a great production."

Leeson said she didn't solicit any direct advice from people who have led other TEA productions over the years, but she said she has learned a lot by watching the directors of the shows with which she has been associated.

She drew the "Four Weddings and an Elvis" assignment last summer while she was working on TEA's production of "Robin Hood" at the Lions Wilderness Park Amphitheater. That afforded her the opportunity to take plenty of mental notes as she observed how the director of that show, Joey Herring, handled those duties. Watching Herring communicate her likes and dislikes to the actors was the most valuable part of that experience, she said.

The play Leeson is directing is set at a Las Vegas wedding chapel and takes place over four acts, each of them revolving around a wedding, as the title makes clear. The production showcases a large cast, one that is a mix of TEA veterans and newcomers.

A total of 11 actors are featured in the play, and Leeson said that while some (Chuck Holmes, Steve Borstein, Tim Bagley) have appeared in several of the company's shows, others (Stephanie McDonald) have never set foot on a stage before.

That has made for some interesting dynamics as rehearsals progressed, she said.

"There are all different levels of experience," Leeson said, explaining that that element has brought a heightened degree of freshness to the production. "The cast has been all about helping each other out, but even the new actors are helping the (veteran) ones find new ground together."

The show also has some compelling family dynamics among its cast members. Two of the actors — Victoria Wright and Sterling Schwartz — are a real-life couple, though they won't appear on stage together, while Karen DiGiacomo and Annette DiGiacomo are a mother-and-daughter team.

"I just love that it's a show about weddings, and we have a real couple," Leeson said of Wright and Schwartz.

She said it has been equally entertaining to watch the DiGiacomos work together. Annette is a TEA veteran, but her mom, Karen, is performing with the company for only the second time.

"It's been great to see her grow as an actress," Leeson said.

The cast is rounded out by Ethan Franklin and Bil Idzerda.

The play is first and foremost a comedy, Leeson acknowledged, but she also noted its focus on romantic relationships makes it a good fit for the holiday weekend.

"This is a really, really funny show," she said. "I would encourage anyone who needs Valentine's Day plans to come out."

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"Four Weddings and an Elvis" will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 14-15 and Feb. 21-22 at the Totah Theater, 315 W. Main St. in downtown Farmington. It also will be presented at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 23. Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for students or seniors. Call 505-326-2839 or email teartsnm@gmail.com.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com.

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