Jack Neary stands, arms folded, in the aisle of UMass Lowell's Durgin Hall. His eyes never leave the stage, as actors rehearse a scene for Greater Lowell Music Theater's upcoming production of Guys and Dolls on July 12-13.
Neary is the director -- and he's in his element.
He chuckles at funny lines, urges them to pace their delivery and even goes on stage to move props for a scene change.
Neary co-founded GLMT with his long-time collaborators Leon Grande and Phyllis George, along with Paul Marion, executive director of UMass Lowell's Center for Arts and Ideas, in the fall of 2011.
Guys and Dolls is the group's third venture, after a concert performance of The Music Man last summer and Melody Cavalcade, a musical revue, in March. Neary promises a great evening of theater.
"Phyllis, Leon and I love this show -- it made Entertainment Weekly's list of 15 top musicals," said Neary of the Frank Loesser/Jo Swerling/Abe Burrows' classic.
Based on Damon Runyan stories about gangsters, gamblers and their gals in the '20s and '30s, it opened on Broadway in 1950, won the Tony Award for Best Musical, was made into a film in 1955, starring Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine and has had several revivals.
"It's got a funny book, great songs -- and our cast has great musical talent," he said.
Putting on a show comes naturally to Neary. He's done it all his life, since growing up on London Street near Sacred Heart Church.
The oldest of the late John Neary Sr. and Virginia Neary Dockett's four kids -- two boys and two girls -- he was born at the old St. John's Hospital "several decades" ago.
Music was a big part of their lives, he said.
"I grew up in a musical family. We all sang with various bands. Dad emceed shows, and mom played piano," he said.
The theater bug bit Neary at Lowell State College in the 1970s, when he performed with its Drama Club and did shows with now defunct Garrett Players in Lawrence.
Early roles include J. Pierrepont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Richard Henry Lee in 1776 and Charlie Brown in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
"Once I started, I never stopped," said Neary.
He did summer stock at Theatre by the Sea in Matunuck, R.I. and Keene Music Theatre in New Hampshire.
"We cranked out a show every two weeks and worked 20 hours a day. It was hard," Neary said.
Connections there brought him to Smith College graduate program in theater.
"I met a pretty girl from Smith at Keene Music's call board. She told me I should go to Smith for my masters -- so I did," said Neary.
He earned his MFA in 1977 and became affiliated with Mount Holyoke College Summer Theater, where he acted, directed and produced shows and New Century Theater, which he co-founded at Smith in the early 1990s with Smith actor Sam Rush and returns to each summer to direct.
He also worked with Len Berkman, a well-known playwriting teacher at Smith, who helped him hone his skills.
Among his plays are First Night and To Forgive, Divine, which were produced at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. First Night also played Boston and briefly off-Broadway. Jerry Finnegan's Sister played nationally and internationally, including a long run in Paris. His latest, Auld Lang Syne, had a successful run last summer at New Hampshire's Peterborough Players. Starring Gordon Clapp, Emmy winning NYPD Blue actor, it won five awards at the 11th annual NH Theatre Awards, including Best Actor, Actress, Director, Original Play and Production.
Neary still acts occasionally, including a scene in Ben Affleck's 2010 film The Town, where he is one of two guys held up at Fenway Park.
"Affleck was the nicest guy -- a great filmmaker who does it all. And he put me on the credits," said Neary.
But he now considers himself a writer and director. And the GLMT realizes a long-time pledge he made to Grande when they worked together directing annual musicals for 15 years at Dracut High School.
"I told Lee we'd create this after he retired from Dracut. That happened a couple of years ago. Then Paul Marion got on board and he and everyone at UML has been incredibly helpful, every day," he said.
Guys and Dolls is a fully staged production with live orchestra.
"The voices are incredible, the tunes, memorable. Our outstanding musicianship is what we have to offer," said Neary.
Guys and Dolls will be performed Friday-Saturday, July 12-13, at 7:30 p.m. at Durgin Hall on the UML South Campus. Tickets $25; $15, students and seniors over 65. Visit www.glmt.org or call 978-319-8867 for info.