7 p.m. Thursday, July 29 and 30, 2 p.m. July 31, Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St., $10 open seating, tickets available at csfineartscenter.org/ theatre-events/thoroughly-modern- millie, 634-5581

Sam Prybil shook with nerves as he sang the final note of his audition song for Youth Repertory Theatre. He waited for a response from Nathan Halvorson, the Fine Arts Center's associate director of performing arts.

There was only silence. Then, laughter.

"You're so weird," Halvorson told him.

That was three years ago. Today, 18-year-old Prybil is starring as Jimmy in the repertory's production of "Thoroughly Modern Millie," which opens Thursday and runs through July 31 at the Fine Arts Center. The musical is heavy with tap dancing that, like Halvorson's directorial style, its performers had to warm up to.

It's not that the repertory's students, ages 14 through 18, don't like Halvorson. In fact, Prybil and his 16-year-old co-star, Abby Roubal, said he's chiefly responsible for their improvement in the last three years they've done the program.

But Halvorson is direct. He calls out mistakes, and he treats the students like adults to help prepare them for future theatrical endeavors.

"That's what you have to understand when you're a new kid coming in because he's not going after you, he's not targeting you, he's trying to make you the best you can be," Roubal said.

"Everything he does really is for our betterment and benefit," Prybil added.

Repertory students spend from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week, five weeks in a row, taking theater classes and learning a show - it's a serious program for serious theater kids. This is Halvorson's fifth year directing for the program, and he tries to craft a different experience every year to challenge his students.

This year, the challenge is tap.

Roubal said many of the production's 29 cast members have limited or no experience tap dancing, herself included. Their first tap class was only a few weeks ago, and she walked in on the first day filled with self-doubt. A few classes boosted her confidence, though, and if faced with a tap audition for future shows or college theater programs, she said she at least knows the fundamentals.

A deep toolkit is what the program is about, Halvorson said. He wants to give students a wide breadth of knowledge, and the final product - the show - is only a fraction of the learning process. As a teenager who loved to sing, dance and act, he said, he wasn't given the same opportunity in his hometown, and he wants the program to give students what he would've wanted as a young artist.

"I think that it's the most important thing I do all year," Halvorson said.

Cassie Heeke, the gazette, 636-0142, cassie.heeke@gazette.com

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