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Students at USF's Broadway Theatre Project dream of a life onstage

Amanda Smith, 18, of Dade City dances during a Broadway Theatre Project class at USF in Tampa on Wednesday. Smith, who is a singer, is among the youngest of this year’s apprentices.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Amanda Smith, 18, of Dade City dances during a Broadway Theatre Project class at USF in Tampa on Wednesday. Smith, who is a singer, is among the youngest of this year’s apprentices.

TAMPA

Young people spring around a dance studio at the University of South Florida, following lyrics booming out of the sound system.

Turn, turn, out, in, jump, step, step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch. Got it?

A young woman at stage left follows along, shaking her head when she misses a turn, then jumping back into the sequence.

At 18, Amanda Smith is among the youngest of this year's Broadway Theatre Project apprentices. She trained as a singer, so dance isn't her strong suit. Sweat drips from her straight brown hair as she hurls a leg toward her head, trying to keep up with the tempo.

On this day she's one of two dozen people in a jazz class, and the next night she and 200 others will give a final group performance. It'll be this way the rest of Amanda's life; she'll struggle to stand out among people just as talented as she is, who want just as badly the same things she does. Lights, music, fame.

Broadway.

•••

Not long after she could talk, Amanda could sing.

She harmonized with songs on the radio from her car seat. Her parents gave her standing ovations as she belted out scores from Disney's The Lion King.

She sang in the shower, sang in the school hallways. She sang in a restaurant and other guests looked up from their steaks. One night, while singing The Sweetest Sounds as the lead role in Cinderella, she made a decision — she would do this for real. Forever.

So Amanda, then a junior at Pasco High, ditched her plan to go to medical school and tried out for the Broadway Theatre Project, a three-week intensive program for showbiz wanna-bes. For more than 12 hours a day, participants learn from veteran Broadway performers and choreographers. A guy who put together the fight scenes for the Heights teaches acting. A former member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater teaches African jazz.

It's tough to get into the program; about 800 audition each year for 200 spots. But the performers face even tougher odds in the future, says Debra McWaters, the program's director who also helped choreograph Chicago. She warns of lines for casting calls that wrap around the block. Rooms of singers and dancers, each a little better than the one before.

"You are amazed at the number of people who walk away who are terrific dancers," McWaters said.

Amanda's going for it anyway.

She thinks about Broadway in the morning, when she exercises her voice in the seclusion of her car. She thinks about it when she trains with her two voice coaches. And when she practices piano, which she plays by ear. She keeps the stage lights in her mind when she slogs through dance classes, playing catchup for all the years she never felt like wearing tights.

In the fall she'll study theater at Florida State University. A few months later she'll go to New York City for her first-ever professional audition.

She has a mental list of dream roles — Emma in Jekyll and Hyde, Glinda in Wicked, Fiona in Shrek — but her expectations are realistic. The first few tryouts will be good learning experiences, no matter what the outcome, she says.

Because she knows that on Broadway, nobody cares that you could have gone to med school or that your parents think you're already a star.

But tough as it'll be, not going for it would be so much worse.

•••

Back in the dance studio, Tyler Hanes, who played Larry in the revival of A Chorus Line on Broadway, is teaching the students that show's opening number.

It's a musical about an audition for a Broadway show — a gamble with impossible odds.

Hanes clicks on the music, and Amanda takes her spot. She executes the turn, nails the kick, and pushes through the rest of the routine.

God I hope I get it, I hope I get it. …

The teacher hits stop. Then claps.

"Again!"

Reach Kim Wilmath at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

If you go

See the Broadway Theatre Project apprentices perform today at 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the University of South Florida. Tickets are available on Ticketmaster by searching BTP.

Students at USF's Broadway Theatre Project dream of a life onstage 07/30/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 30, 2011 1:25am]

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