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Boston theater's renaissance man

At the Lyric, Spiro Veloudos has led a local stage revival

Spiro Veloudos doesn't do anything in a hesitant way. So when he broke into theater, he did it literally.

As a student in Springfield in the 1960s, Veloudos used to go to the movies without stopping at the ticket booth. Attending school events in the Capitol Theatre, Veloudos would head to the men's room, and when the coast was clear, he'd duck into the movie.

One day in sixth grade, the semi-delinquent student encountered a cinematic con man, and Veloudos's love of the movies turned into a love of the theater. Harold Hill, in the person of Robert Preston, was leading a brass band down an Iowa street in the movie ''The Music Man," and Veloudos wanted to join the parade.

Now he's all but leading the parade. Since becoming producing artistic director of the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, he has been one of the most instrumental figures -- perhaps even the key person -- in the growth of the local theater scene.

And this is not only his best season but arguably the most interesting one any company in the area has undertaken. It began with a production of ''Urinetown" that was infinitely better than the touring show that played the Colonial Theatre in 2004. Veloudos directed ''Urinetown," as well as the superb version of ''The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?" that's now at the Lyric, a production comparable in quality to the original Broadway staging of Edward Albee's play.

In between have been fine productions of material as diverse as Steve Martin's farcical comedy ''The Underpants," Regina Taylor's gospel-inflected ''Crowns," and Caryl Churchill's bracing ''A Number."

Since Veloudos's youth, his taste in musicals has shifted from ''Music Man" composer Meredith Willson to Stephen Sondheim. There have been fine productions of Sondheim musicals locally in the past seven years, none better than those directed by him. He led a fabulous version of ''Sunday in the Park With George" in 2001, showcasing many of the area's best singers, and then made the Lyric's relatively small space an asset last season by finding a soulfulness in ''A Little Night Music" that eludes large-scale productions.

But the real sign of things to come for Veloudos and the Lyric came in his first full season, 1998-99, with a dazzling production of ''Assassins," Sondheim's lethal, less-performed musical about presidential murderers and wannabes.

Veloudos had been brought in by the Lyric board in the middle of the previous season to replace company founders Ron Ritchell and Polly Hogan. It was a controversial move, as the old Lyric had concentrated more on the classics, from Sophocles to Shaw.

After kicking off the new season with a solid, unsentimental production of Neil Simon's ''Lost in Yonkers," Veloudos tore into ''Assassins" with a passion, signing up superb singers and Jonathan Goldberg's excellent small band.

Veloudos knew what the stakes were. ''I thought that was a high-water mark at that time for the Lyric, for me, and, I'd like to say, Boston theater," he says.

No one has ever accused him of being self-effacing.

But he's not wrong, either. Up until then Boston certainly had good productions at companies other than the American Repertory Theatre and Huntington Theatre Company. But in terms of consistency, the next level down represented a precipitous drop. Not only did Veloudos close that gap, but he was out in front of a charge that in subsequent years would include the New Repertory Theatre, SpeakEasy Stage Company, Sugan Theatre Company, and most recently Actors' Shakespeare Project.

Taking control
When Veloudos was young, his mother indulged him in his love of theater, taking him to ''Bells Are Ringing," ''Kismet," and other plays and musicals. He performed in school plays and decided to try to make a career out of it, settling on Emerson College. ''I started as an actor, but it became obvious to me that at some point in my life, I would be a director," he says. ''It suited, for lack of a better term, my need for controlling things."

Veloudos graduated in 1974, spent a few summers acting at Boston's Publick Theatre, gave New York a try for a year, and then came back to the Boston area. Soon the artistic directorship at the Publick became vacant and Veloudos, who had developed a taste for administration as a Publick board member, took the job.

The company has never been rolling in dough, and it certainly wasn't then. ''I had to borrow $2,500 from my then-girlfriend's mother to open a production of 'The Mousetrap,' " Veloudos recalls.

Soon the Publick was doing better, and Veloudos added Shakespeare to a mix of Gilbert and Sullivan, musicals, and comedies. The musicals were particularly well received; Veloudos won an Elliot Norton Award for his direction of ''Sweeney Todd" and ''Anything Goes" in 1996.

He was also freelancing at the Lyric Stage as a director. He became a logical choice to take over when the board decided to oust the founders.

Veloudos wanted the job, but he also wanted to change the company's direction. ''I had felt that the work that the Lyric was doing was museumlike, tired, musty," he says. ''I tried to do two things -- establish the Lyric as a contemporary theater company, and secondly, frankly, bring down the median age of the audience. The way you do that is with programming. People want to see themselves onstage, so we started to find things that were more contemporary to a younger audience."

Veloudos also speaks to that audience directly. As theatergoers make their way up the steps of the YWCA building on Clarendon Street, which houses the Lyric, Veloudos is almost always there. Six feet tall and of fluctuating girth, he is as gregarious as he is imposing-looking, chatting with visitors outside the lobby both before and after performances.

He also makes the point with each curtain speech that the Lyric wholly supports Boston actors, directors, and designers instead of looking to New York or beyond. His friend Rick Lombardo, who runs the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, laughs when he comments that there's a bit of wiggle room there. ''They could have lived in Boston once or have a second cousin here," he says. But he agrees that ''you can't talk about the renaissance of the last seven years without saying that the Lyric has been a big part of that story," and that Veloudos's policy of hiring locally has helped keep talent in the area.

Lombardo is also a big fan of Veloudos's directing: ''The thing about Spiro's work is that I always feel an enormous amount of attention to what's funny. Also, that big Greek heart. You always feel that somewhere in his work."

A fiery spirit
After that first big year, subsequent Lyric seasons had their highs and lows before hitting bottom with the 2002-03 season. Reviews were mixed to poor for almost everything, ticket sales dragged, and Veloudos was depressed.

''When you have a huge deficit, you're not dancing in the street," he says. ''We had to tighten our belts a little bit for our 30th season," in 2003-04.

Things began turning around that year with a mixture of crowd pleasers, Neil LaBute's tough ''The Mercy Seat," and two particularly fine productions, ''Private Lives" and the wildly popular ''Noises Off," directed by Veloudos, who had his groove back.

''He is genuinely an actor's director," says Ted Reinstein, a reporter for WCVB's ''Chronicle" who acted with Veloudos at the Publick and has returned to the boards to work with him in two David Mamet plays at the Lyric. ''He doesn't overlay a director's choice before the actor has had time to play with the role. I think it makes him an extraordinary director."

At the same time, says Reinstein, Veloudos doesn't suffer foolish ideas gladly: ''He has great self-confidence, and that gives actors confidence in his directing." Others add that Veloudos is a generous colleague and mentor.

Not every actor agrees. Veloudos's self-confidence is sometimes seen as arrogance. And while Lombardo and others consider him warmhearted, others see him as hot-blooded and too prone to losing his temper -- which Veloudos says he has learned to control.

Says Lombardo, ''Spiro would hardly be shocked that he's considered tempestuous by some. We were in our first negotiating session with Equity 7 1/2 years ago, and in those sessions everyone takes on a role. Spiro said to me, 'Don't you worry, I'll play the bad cop.' He'd get his dander up and slam his hand on the table, and I'm acting like I'm having to calm him down. He's been an actor, so it's an easy role for him to play."

Probably the easiest role for him to play, though, is that of a successful artistic director. He's generous in his praise for managing director Sara Glidden, who has allowed him to concentrate on artistic choices. On the success front, Glidden reports that ''The Underpants," ''Urinetown," and ''Crowns" are among the most popular shows ever at the Lyric and that the season's two tougher plays, ''A Number" and ''The Goat," have been well ahead of projections.

Veloudos looks forward to the Lyric's season-ender, the world premiere of Jack Neary's ''Kong's Night Out," which he cites as the kind of play Boston could begin exporting rather than importing from New York and other cities.

He does not foresee a new home for the Lyric akin to those for the New Rep in Watertown and SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts.

''Would it be great to have state-of-the-art lighting and sound equipment? Sure. But I like the relationship of the audience to the actor in this space," he says. ''There's no place to hide.

''There's something about this space where the front row is on the stage," he adds. ''It's my home."

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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