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Students bring Broadway to Tampa

The Broadway Theatre Project proves quality musical theater is a genre alive and well.

By CAMILLE REYES

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000


TAMPA -- Musical theater kids are a strange lot. They sing show tunes in the shower, they do dance steps on the street, they'd rather win a Tony than an Oscar, and they all dream of performing on the Great White Way. For these kids, Broadway great Ann Reinking is a goddess, albeit a down-to-earth goddess who just happens to care enough about kids and the art of musical theater to create a place where they can learn from the masters.

Saturday night, the 130 students of Reinking's Broadway Theatre Project nailed an uncommonly good 10th anniversary revue at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. The apprentices, ages 14-24, let loose in a final performance after three weeks of instruction from the likes of Gwen Verdon, Patti LuPone, Ben Vereen and, of course, Reinking herself. The students must audition to be a part of this annual fantasy workshop held at the University of South Florida.

The revue opened with a stunning picture, fresh faces clad in black dance attire huddled together to form an exotic flower with hands and arms writhing in the air in a sort of freestyle homage to Bob Fosse. The flower burst to life against a stark, blue lit backdrop, and the opening medley, choreographed by Reinking, began to blossom.

The Bacharach Medley, also choreographed by Reinking and comprising songs like I Say a Little Prayer and I'll Never Fall in Love Again, was one of the show's standouts. The group of young women gave the oldies but goodies a Y2K facelift, singing with a girl power twist and sexy dance moves. Reinking proves she can still get jiggy with her choreography, blending hip-hop style with Fosse hands. Not to be outdone, the men of BTP swept in with a great pelvic thrusting rendition of Boogie Shoes, choreographed by Ronnie DeMarco.

Although dance has been the predominant aspect of musical theater's three arts (acting, dancing and singing) at the project, Reinking has worked to intensify the voice and dramatic training. The results have been remarkable; there were as many strong voices as dancers, and even a blessed few with the coveted triple threat. The young woman who sang Guess Who I Saw Today embodied the vocal talent popping and cracking all over the stage, with a gorgeous, jaw-dropping blues rendition.

The seven performers in The Writers, based on a sketch by Monty Python, proved the acting chops of the cast with a scene better than most performances on Saturday Night Live. In fact, one young woman with frizzy hair is already a great physical comedian, sharing a gift reminiscent of the late Gilda Radner.

Typically in revues, especially those with kids, there will be performers who pull focus or draw attention away from the groove of a piece due to an exceptional abundance or comparative lack of talent. However, this year's class was collectively phenomenal, leaving one audience member to exclaim, "Who needs to go to Broadway?"

Indeed, the future of musical theater as a genre lives in these students. In a terrific number about a high school reunion, cast members sing about remembering the kid inside -- an ironic choice considering a lot of them have not even graduated from high school. Yet it was appropriate for this group, many of whom will embark on a career path fraught with rejection and exhaustion. Sadly, the backstage reality of musical theater is not raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. But for one night at least, the students do know the child within and express their gifts with pure, unadulterated joy.

The program closed with three tender songs by Sondheim, a choice guaranteed to yank out the handkerchiefs. The entire company performed each song with no glitz, no gimmicks, just heart and soul. In the finale, taken from Sunday in the Park with George, a young man reads words from the musical that capture the beauty of the eager faces crowded on the stage. "White. A blank page or canvas. . . . so many possibilities."

Indeed.

- Reviewer Camille Reyes was a student in the Broadway Theatre Project in 1993.

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