"The Very Model of a Major Merry Music Hall"

Through Sept. 5

Interact Theatre Company at Arena Stage

Tickets: 703/218-6500

You might not notice him at first. (In fact, he hopes you don't.) But fading into the woodwork behind the bar at the Old Bull and Bush -- the pub and music hall re-created in the Old Vat Theater -- Larry Edward Vote keeps a keen eye on the action. Even though the actors can't always eye him back. As musical director, he conducts the two-person orchestra and holds the singers to the beat, though they are often blind to his signals.

But that's okay with Vote. In musical theater, he says, "you never look directly at the conductor -- it's a giveaway to the audience, and a little off-putting. You kind of look peripherally."

Sight lines at the theater are inconsistent, to put it mildly. There's a small stage area in the front, site of most of the action, which includes the comic operetta "The Merryman and His Maids," a pastiche of bits of Gilbert and Sullivan works. But lots of the singing comes from actors on the sides, standing around the two matching bars. Luckily, the cast -- several of whom are veterans of other Interact productions -- operates on well-honed instinct much of the time. (Pictured above: Timothy R. King, center, Dori Legg and David Neal.)

"They know when they can get a good shot at what the conductor is doing," Vote says. "It's a skill they've learned over a number of years."

To keep himself on track, Vote mouths the words along with the songs -- and he's also the rare conductor who gets to actually belt it out from time to time in the choruses.

"I felt like with the informality of the Old Vat, it was okay" to sing, Vote says. "I thought, `I'll just be a crazy person at the bar.'"