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Gigi

Gaston needed help. His memory was failing him.

"Line," called actor Christopher Strong as his Gaston turned from Gigi to her grandmother.

"Line," he called out again as Gaston turned back to Gigi.

That wasn't the only trouble during St. Petersburg Little Theatre's final rehearsals for Gigi. Co-producer Nancy Knuckey kept a running list.

Robert Dobbs didn't have the hang of the polka. Judy Peterson called her costume "the sack." Nothing fit Bill Carpenter.

While director George Hamilton rehearsed, Dick Poole, 74, ripped gold sequins from a red jacket of raw silk that he thought might fit Carpenter.

No such luck.

It may sound as though disaster loomed seven nights before Gigi was to open, but Hamilton couched his criticism in encouragement.

"The scene going into Champagne collapsed tonight," he said of the card game between Gigi and Gaston. "I would dearly love to see that again. It's got to be a souffle, not a pudding."

While juggling work, school, family and friends, actors memorized lines, learned how to use props and mastered entrances and exits.

"It is difficult," said Kathryn Lizely (Gigi), 17, a junior at Pinellas County Center for the Arts. "You have to get the technical part, the blocking, the memorization, the songs, and then you add yourself to the character."

Yet on opening night, the souffle would rise. The costumes fit, with a few last-minute stiches by chorus member Rose West. The sets were painted in art nouveau swirls and curlicues. The actors knew their lines well enough that an interplay developed between them. The songs were delivered with gusto.

Murmurs _ "It was great. It was good." _ could be heard from audience members leaving the show.

"It's like a puzzle. It's a puzzle how to get it all to come together," Hamilton said. "This is community theater."

The budget for Gigi is more than $10,000, said Knuckey, the co-producer who is also president of the Little Theatre.

The theater will stage six shows in its 72nd season and spend an estimated $62,600 on production costs. The majority of the budget is raised from season ticket sales and from subscribers who agree to donate up to $1,000 a year to the theater, Knuckey said.

For Gigi, the theater pays for the rights to stage the musical. It also pays the musical director, live musicians, the set designer, the set builder and the lighting designer. The actors work for free.

Hamilton, 46, is not a full-time musical director. He owns the National Payment Corp. and the National Partnership Exchange in Tampa.

The show is essentially a labor of love.

"This is our golf and our fishing," said Poole, between ripping sequins off the jacket.

The actors commit to six weeks of practice and two weeks of performing if they decide to get involved in a show. The late-night rehearsals and the demands of learning a part take their toll, even on actors playing the minor characters.

Allen Hale, who plays a butler and worked as the show's costume designer, caught himself dozing off as a transfer clerk at Raymond James & Associates.

Judy Peterson had seen little of her husband, Duane. "He tried to kiss me this morning, and I told him I don't kiss strangers," she said.

Labor lawyer Bruce Taylor, 45, is playing the part of Gaston's uncle, Honore Lachailles. Late rehearsals have been followed by early-morning drives to Miami, Melbourne and Fort Myers in the days leading to opening night.

"I will not get involved in any more than three shows a year," he said, when asked how he manages his time.

At the Monday evening run-through with orchestra, the cast was upbeat. Between appearances onstage, they lounged in the break room in costume, cracking jokes and calling out encouragement.

Despite driving to and from Miami that day, Taylor somehow tapped into a new energy source. He waltzed and sang She is Not Thinking of Me backstage as Strong sang in a scene at Maxim's nightclub.

"Are you off to Trouville?" someone called out to Sister Elaine Taylor, no relation to Bruce Taylor, as she left the break room for a scene at the beach with Milton O'Neal.

"Hope you win at dominoes," someone else trills.

Sister Elaine, a Sinsinawa Dominican nun who teaches English and religion at the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa, has been acting in community theater for 20 years. It started when she was stationed in Wyoming and saw an advertisement for an audition for My Fair Lady.

She was encouraged by the other nuns to try out, although Sister Elaine acknowledged she was unsure whether such activities were allowed.

"Why not? We are way out here in Wyoming," said the other nuns. "Who is going to know?"

"That's how it all started," Sister Elaine said.

For the run-through, Judy Peterson, 50, has a flouncy pink dress that hangs nicely on her tall, reed-thin frame. A pink feather arches jauntily from her hat.

The special education teacher rises at 5:30 a.m. to make it from her home in Brandon to her job at Plant High School. She hasn't been getting home until past midnight lately. This is her first community theater production.

"I always wanted to do it. I saw the ad in the paper, and I thought, "Nothing ventured, Nothing gained,' " she said.

Little Theatre sold 265 of its 398 seats for opening night. That bodes well for this production, said operations coordinator Dan Khoury.

"We have very few seats left for Sunday, and we think by next weekend we will be close to sold out," he said.

In the women's dressing room on opening night, two students from Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School discussed which song in the production is their favorite. Liza Pahel, 16, and Virginia Stringer, 14, then sang the heartwrenching In This Wide, Wide World as they applied mascara and lipstick.

"I hate makeup," Pahel said.

In the breakroom, with everyone in full costume, Janet Crockett Hunter led the troupe in a rousing march.

"Warm up," she called to Strong as he gave his gray waistcoat one last tug. Hunter, who plays Gigi's grandmother Mamita, has directed several musicals herself for the Little Theatre.

"Places," a techie announced.

Show time.

If you go

The St. Petersburg Little Theatre production of Gigi continues Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. All shows are $15. The theater is at 4025 31st St. S. For reservations, call the box office at 866-1973.

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