In Tune To Musicals -- Director-Choreographer Stephen Terrell Climbs The Ladder Of Success - The Nice Way

------------------------------- THEATER PREVIEW

"Oliver!" By Lionel Bart, directed by Stephen Terrell, opens tonight and runs Friday-Sunday through Oct. 23. Produced by Civic Light Opera at Jane Addams Theatre, 11051 34th N.E., Seattle ($16-$20; 206-363-2809). -------------------------------

Most of the chorus members in the original Los Angeles production of "Dreamgirls" did not bother to hang around the rehearsal hall when they weren't needed.

Not Stephen Terrell.

The young actor-dancer spent every moment possible watching the show's brilliant director, Michael Bennett (who broke the Broadway mold with the backstage musical "A Chorus Line"), work his magic. And as he watched, Terrell learned.

Years later, at age 42, the still-boyish-looking director-choreographer is now Seattle's leading helmer of stage musicals. And he's moving into opera, too.

Tonight, Terrell's production of the Charles Dickens-inspired "Oliver!" opens Civic Light Opera's season at Jane Addams Theatre. In November, his "Pirates of Penzance" at Issaquah's Village Theatre holds forth. And he'll commandeer the Leo Delibes opera "Lakme" for a February run at Seattle Opera.

As if that weren't enough, Terrell, a genial Texan who speaks in a Seattle-mellowed drawl, will be "scouting" out new musicals in New York for the Seattle Repertory Theatre this fall.

And, he says, he's also "throwing my hat in the ring" for the artistic director job at 5th Avenue Theatre, the historic downtown presenter of new and antique Broadway musicals.

Whoever said nice guys finish last hasn't met Terrell, whose thriving ambition is softened by an easy-going, good-humored charm.

"He's got great people skills," and a lot of different talents," says Seattle Rep artistic director Sharon Ott, who hired Terrell to stage the Noel Coward revue `"h, Coward!" at the Rep last season.

Chimes in Seattle Opera honcho and fellow Texas native Speight Jenkins: "People who work with Stephen just love him. He has the ability to ingratiate himself with anyone, and to inspire people to do what he wants them to do."

Admirers also praise Terrell's graceful fusing of music, movement and drama, a talent well displayed in the sparkling "My Fair Lady" he staged at Village Theatre recently.

Terrell says his passion for tuners stems from watching his father "play all the big leads" in amateur shows in their hometown of Longview, Texas.

He first saw his dad in "Oklahoma!" and "I just went beserk. I knew what I'd do with my life right then, and I never changed my mind."

As fate would have it, Terrell broke into acting himself in a high-school airing of "Oklahoma!" - playing Will Parker, the same role his dad took.

After two years in college, Terrell turned pro to perform at a Texas theme park. Then a few years of kicking around New York led to chorus work in Broadway musicals, and the chance to observe Bennett in action.

"It was the best and the worst of lessons," Terrell recalls. "I got to see how amazingly creative he was, and how mean and cruel he could be."

Mean and cruel were not in Terrell's repertoire when one former teacher gave him his first directing job, at the Texas Shakespeare Festival. Later, a partnership with Seattle composer Scott Warrender led him to stage the spoofy "Texas Chainsaw Manicurist" Off-Broadway, and two Seattle stands of "Das Barbecu" (Warrender's parody of the Wagnerian "Ring Cycle").

Since moving to Seattle 10 years ago, Terrell has worked constantly. Though he envisions a bi-coastal career (this summer he directed "No, No Nanette" in Connecticut), the 5th Avenue Theatre job intrigues him.

"I'd like to see the 5th Avenue use the resources it has in a more imaginative way, to do more interesting, higher-quality work," says Terrell, who has mounted two shows for the company.

"It's really part of my crusade to legitimize musicals as a valid artistic form," he says passionately. "People love musicals, but only if they're done really, really well. I don't think the musical is a dying art. But it has to be great to pull people in and make them go with you."