Thursday, April 3, 2003

CCM seniors brace themselves, teens for tryouts

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] High school students watch a routine by a University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music student, designed to help the younger performers relax for their auditions.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
Friday and Saturday, audiences get to play casting agent. The annual CCM Musical Theatre Senior Showcase is a warm-up of the 30-minute presentation that the dozen University of Cincinnati students will perform in New York next week for agents and producers.

The College-Conservatory of Music does a revue-style audition that seniors work on all year. This year's theme: Mars and Venus. It is their introduction to a Broadway career, if the graduating seniors have what it takes.

But the first big doorway opens four years earlier, when almost 600 hopefuls from across the United States vie for about 24 available freshman slots in CCM's musical theater program.

The faculty has been auditioning across the country - New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Seattle - since January. The first session was on the UC campus.

It looked a lot like A Chorus Line. Only more grueling.

At 9 a.m., feet were pounding in the dance rehearsal hall. High school seniors from as far as California and Washington were learning combinations, taught by a tag-team of upperclassmen.

"Kick on two, turn three, four, five, six step, going one, two, three jump, walk back."

Hopefuls scrambled to get it right as they danced across the room in groups of five. Some of them remembered to smile.

There was much chiding about hand positions. Hardly anyone remembered to keep straight jazz hands with fingers pointed skyward. Wrists flopped like a Vegas showgirl's. "That's Nevada, this is Cincinnati!"

Dance teacher Diane Lala urged, "Have fun, relax, be happy."

What: CCM Musical Theatre Senior Showcase
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Werner Recital Hall, College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati
Tickets: Free. Call the box office at 556-4183 for reservations.
Oh, yeah.

"We have the triple-threat philosophy," says department chair Aubrey Berg. "Act when you sing and move when you do both. We want performers who can integrate the skills."

CCM prides itself on graduating triple threats, but very few students enter that way. Lala looks for students who have ease of movement, can shift weight, who have the ability to learn. And who have personality, high energy, magnetism.

Graduating senior Blake Ginther remembers it well, including the anxiety and fear thick in the air.

"I was a singer who looked uncomfortable on stage," says Ginther. "I had to learn stage presence, acting and some dance."

Learning was a long process - the entire four years, says Ginther.

"Morning, noon and night you live and breathe it," interjects classmate Leo Nouhan.

Tiny Melissa Bohon (Princess Winifred in Once Upon a Mattress at Hot Summer Nights) says, "I had to learn to belt. I was shocked to learn that I wasn't an ingenue."

Getting into UC's theater department matters. CCM is rated at the top in the nation, and one of the chief criteria is that graduates work. It's the rare Broadway musical that doesn't include a CCM grad - the recent revival of Oklahoma! had five.

Berg, Lala and musical director Roger Grodsky watch for both good and bad training. Part of the consideration is whether they can undo bad advice a talented youngster has gotten.

After dance auditions, students waited nervously for singing and acting auditions. Three minutes included 32 measures of two songs and a one-minute monologue.

Some hopefuls spend months choosing the right material, and even work with vocal coaches and drama teachers.

That Saturday, CCM faculty saw a student every six minutes. Berg says 10 seconds is enough time to know.

Heather Lilek and Roy Lightner are best friends from Kansas City, home to several current CCM students including Angel Reda, a graduating senior who recently starred in The Wild Party.

A typically giggly high school senior, Lilek is given to nerves. Before she walked into the audition room, she fretted. "I want to do a good job and be myself - but it's not as easy as it sounds."

Ginther concurs. Maybe the hardest lesson, he says, was "learning to be myself."

Berg, Lala and Grodsky asked one hopeful why she wanted to attend CCM. "I want to go somewhere where I'm not the best. I want to be pushed. I'll work hard. I'll do whatever I need to do to get where I want to be."

None of these kids made the cut.

"One day last year," Lala noted, "we saw 65 people and accepted no one. It means everything to them, and that makes it worse for us."

New York is the next stop for the CCM senior class. Bohon will move in (temporarily) with older brother Justin, also a CCM grad and a breakout star in last year's Broadway revival of Oklahoma!

The plan: "Starve and audition," says Neal Shrader, speaking for the class of 2003.

Catch the show and say you knew them when.

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