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Play adds a bit of summer seasoning

Published Sep. 10, 2005

When James Demetrius was in school, most teachers wrote him off.

His parents divorced when he was a toddler and he didn't have a father figure in his life. By the time he reached junior high, the short, round kid with a buzz haircut had turned his anger inward. He no longer responded to his teachers. And they refused to deal with him, believing his attitude problem couldn't be fixed.

His English teacher, Ms. Owens, didn't buy it. She knew the perfect cure for his affliction _ a good old-fashioned dose of theater.

"It changed the direction of my life," said Demetrius, 42. "I spend all my life trying to repay that."

Consider Demetrius' latest project, a lavish production of Neil Simon's Sweet Charity, as a payment on that debt. He is the set designer and one of the lead actors in the production, which opened Friday at the Eight O'Clock Theatre. It is made possible by a partnership between the Largo Cultural Center and Pinellas County schools.

Last year, in response to changes in the state budget, Pinellas schools cut summer electives such as art, music and theater. The partnership lets students earn credit for free instruction in theater, while giving them an opportunity to work with seasoned actors and production staff.

"They're open to the whole theater experience that's not in their high school. It's a real theater and they get to work, not just with their high school chums, but with people they wouldn't normally be exposed to," director Maria Gerakios said.

The district also benefits. The city of Largo and Partners N Progress for the Arts theater foundation foot the bill, estimated at $30,650.

The experienced production staff includes music director Mark Jelks and choreographer Ronnie DeMarco, both with a host of Broadway and regional credits. Jelks worked as a pianist on hits such as Cats and Phantom of the Opera and DeMarco's credits include the Ed Sullivan Show and Dean Martin Show.

Katie Mleczko, 17, welcomes the chance to learn from accomplished actors and dancers for her first musical.

"I'm learning a lot by watching the more experienced people. We're all very fortunate to be doing it," said Mleczko, who attends Gibbs High School's Pinellas County Center for the Arts.

Sweet Charity, originally directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, features jazzy song and dance numbers like Big Spender and "If My Friends Could See Me Now along with snazzy costumes, glossy sets and hairdos with personalities all their own.

Some student cast members, such as Countryside High graduate Summer Gray, 17, can't imagine what they'd be doing if they weren't working on a summer play.

"I guess people sit and watch TV," she said.

Gerakios, 41, an English teacher and former drama teacher at Countryside High School, is a stickler for details. She goes over each scene, right down to the curtain call, with a fine-tooth comb.

Tyson Savoretti, 17, of Countryside High, believes that the organization required on set has brought order to his teenage life.

"I have more self-confidence than I could have ever gotten on my own. I've had an accelerated learning course in adulthood," he said.

More experienced actors such as Melissa Amarine, 28, think this partnership has another benefit. It helps keep theater alive.

"It's a good thing to know that another generation is coming up behind us that will keep that going. Anything that keeps the young generation interested in this I find really exciting," she said.