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it's Showtime for stars-in-training

A student sits alone in the corner of the dance studio, entranced as he plays the piano. Strains of Furlise waft through the halls. Nearby, a tired dance student curls up in a ball on a bench and sleeps.

Exhilaration and exhaustion.

That's what the past three weeks have been like for the 86 teenagers from around the country participating in the Musical Theatre Project of Tampa at the University of South Florida _ a Broadway-oriented program designed to help gifted youngsters prepare for careers onstage.

After surviving rigorous auditions and grueling rehearsals, the students are ready to face audiences Saturday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center with their newly sharpened skills. For about two hours they will sing, dance and act their hearts out.

And then what?

"Theater is so full of the unknown," said actor/director Peter Hunt, an MTPT guest instructor. "Broadway tends to run in cycles. For a while, the book musical was really strong. Dance is not as strong as it has been in the past, but it will come back. We tell students to be as total a theater person as you possibly can be."

The students of MTPT realize that becoming a total theater person takes a lot of work.

It means staying up late to memorize lines for a play. It means dancing on bleeding toes and smiling despite the pain.

It means stumbling over a song, running offstage in tears and returning to belt out a stirring rendition of Troubles of the World.

"You have to have a burning desire to do this," said MTPT founder and artistic director Ann Reinking, a Broadway veteran and former Tampa resident who started the program six years ago. "Students ask themselves, "Will I be a star?' That's up to God, luck and personal drive."

"This is a very tough business. The odds aren't great," Hunt added. "But today's kids are more committed and more realistic and better prepared to face the odds."

Odds are, only a handful of the students participating in the project will even have a shot at Broadway. Others will go on to perform elsewhere and still others will never become performers.

Still, the students are buoyed by the hopes of one day performing onstage.

"It's a very courageous decision for anyone to decide to make their career as a performer," said star dancer/actor Gregory Hines, a frequent instructor at the program.

However, these students are still a long way from Tony awards and limos. And they are learning that in the world of musical theater, where talented performers sometimes outnumber their audiences, training and skill are not enough.

Reinking, whose resume includes such shows as All That Jazz and A Chorus Line, knows the challenges well, and that's why she started the program. About seven years ago, armed with her reputation as a performer, an old car and sheer will, she traveled the Southeast in search of patrons to fund the fledgling theater project.

"Sometimes," she said, "you create your opportunities."

That's a message Reinking and the many big-name instructors she brings to the program each summer try to teach. It's an intense and thorough learning experience. Consider a scene at a recent tap class taught by Hines.

"Follow me," he called out to dance students milling about behind him. A moment later, he executed an impossibly intricate set of tap dance moves. The group looked around apprehensively, unwilling to be the first to try the steps.

With a toss of red hair, Kelly King, 17, from St. Petersburg's Gibbs High School stepped to the center of the dance floor to answer the challenge. Her ponytail bobbed wildly as she mirrored the moves; arms flailing, feet becoming a blur.

King is in her third year at the program. She moves with the fiery confidence of a seasoned performer. Her green eyes sparkle when she talks about her dreams of making it on Broadway. "The burn and fire is there inside of me," she explains.

Through the countless rehearsals, private voice and dance lessons and hours spent tap-dancing on a little wooden board in her garage, Kelly remains determined. She doesn't allow herself to consider not making it big.

"I was 10 years old when I said, "This is what I want to do,"' she said.

She could be speaking for so many of the MTPT students, whose dreams have flourished this month in Tampa and _ for a select few _ may someday lead to the bright lights of Broadway.

AT A GLANCE

Broadway '96: Musical Theatre Project of Tampa. Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Saturday. Curtain: 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sat. Tickets: $20.

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