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From center stage to center ring

Jennifer Fuentes has been singing for years, and her latest gig is with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

By MARTY CLEAR
Published January 5, 2006


  photo
[Photo: Feld Entertainment]
Jennifer Fuentes just signed on for a two-year stint as the featured vocalist and co-ringmaster with the circus.

Jennifer Fuentes has been on the track to show biz success since she was an American Idol contender three years ago.

For now, she's also on the track of the railroad. She just signed on for a two-year stint as the featured vocalist and co-ringmaster for the 136th edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

"I'm living on the train with several other performers," said Fuentes, a 21-year-old singer who has lived in the Miami area her whole life. "It's not for everybody, but I'm enjoying the travel, meeting all the people and seeing different cultures."

She's also enjoying being a central performer in a radically redesigned version of the Greatest Show on Earth, which is opening its two-year national tour at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa this week.

For the first time, the venerable circus features a story line. A family comes to the circus and, with the help of Fuentes and other performers, each of the four family members gets a chance to realize a circus dream. Dad has always longed to be a ringmaster, mom wants to be an aerialist, sis wants to try it all. Little brother thinks he's too young to do anything, but ultimately finds that it always pays to follow your dreams.

It's all played out on huge video screens, so for the first time audiences will get closeup looks at the faces of performers and animals.

"It's very fast-paced, and the kids will like it because there's so much to look at," Fuentes said.

At its heart, though, the circus is still the same traditional entity that American audiences have been enjoying since the 1800s. The clowns, the trapeze artists, the acrobats are as much a part of the circus as ever.

Fuentes' show biz background had been in pageants when she auditioned for American Idol. She was the reigning Miss Homestead when she appeared on the show, reaching the final 30 in the show's second year. She was in the same group of eight singers with eventual winner Ruben Studdard and runnerup Clay Aiken.

"To get that far, to the final 30, from 60,000 people who auditioned, that was pretty amazing," Fuentes said. "I don't know that I would have wanted to get any higher. I got the experience, I got the exposure, and I learned so much. I got to see all the behind-the-scenes stuff."

After American Idol she took a couple of years off, working as bartender, going to school and trying to figure out what to do next.

She heard about Ringling's national auditions last year, tried out and got a part in the 135th annual edition.

"I've grown so much as a vocalist from doing this," she said. "To go from singing in small places to singing in front of thousands of people, where I have to reach the person in seat G129 and make them feel what I'm feeling, it's a totally different experience."

She recently signed up for another two-year stint with the circus. It's a demanding job; besides the constant travel, she has to perform every night, and there's no understudy to step in if she gets sick.

But she's enjoying it. She likes working with animals (she has one big number with some elephants) and she's learning more about singing, about show business and about working a crowd with every performance.

She doesn't know yet whether she'll re-enlist for another stint after her two years are up, though. She loves the performance part of the job, but can foresee that circus life might wear thin after a while.

"It's too early to tell, but I'm hoping this brings me exposure so that I can move onto the next step in my career," Fuentes said. "This is the singing life for me, but I don't think it's the living life for me."

PREVIEW

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, through Sunday at the St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa. 7:30 p.m. today and Friday, 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday. $15-$70. 813 287-8844 or (727) 898-2100 or www.ringling.com

[Last modified January 4, 2006, 11:17:07]


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