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FAMILY : Young Artists Grow in Rock Theatre

August 11, 1994|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Theatrical "smoke" drifts over Soundstage 10 at Paramount Studios where performers pose immobile in silhouette. Abruptly, a wash of white light captures the figures in an eerie, hazy glow, music wells up and the cast, wielding 3-foot sticks with martial precision, explodes into a high-energy dance interpretation of Janet Jackson's R&B/pop hit "Rhythm Nation."

The choreography is complex, the voices of soloist Nakaze (Nikee) Harris and an offstage chorus are mature and assured. Yet, although these talented performers may look a lot like show-biz pros, they aren't--even though they did a gig in Whoopi Goldberg's "Sister Act 2," have performed at benefits with such pop luminaries as Kenny Loggins and Michael Bolton, represented the United States at the Universal World Expo '92 in Spain and are featured on an upcoming Christmas album from John Tesh's GTS Records.

They are the teen-age and twentyish members of Rock Theatre, a nonprofit, Valley-based, 14-year-old performance training program, and they are rehearsing an ambitious song-and-dance revue, "Rock Theatre in Concert."

The show, featuring music video-style pop-rock hits and Broadway tunes, opens Friday at Paramount for a weekend run through Sept. 11, in repertory with host California Youth Theatre's "Accent on Youth" monthlong performing arts event.

"The show's subtitle is "Coming Out of the Dark," said director-producer Greg Holford, a theater professional with extensive credits in stage and film. "It's fun, it's very different. The opening act has more of a Broadway-type feel. The second act is very much darker, very intense, with more story-oriented stage numbers."

Some of the eclectic selections are Pink Floyd's "In the Flesh," "Only a Lad" from Oingo Boingo and the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams," plus big stage numbers from "Miss Saigon," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" and "Evita."

Challenge is key, Holford noted. "This is a group that has had to be able to go into a studio and record an album, turn around and shoot a production number in a movie, and next day maybe do a musical theater number in an industrial stage presentation. It's bing, bing bing--you gotta be able to handle everything."

"This is a creative way to grow," enthused Rob Zaher, 22, who has been with Rock Theatre since he was 8 years old.

Zaher, who aspires to a recording career, started in the beginners' workshop, an eight-week program for children meeting two hours a week, moved up to the Kids of Rock intermediate group, and finally became part of the advanced performance group, training 10 hours a week in semester-long segments and performing.

(Fees range from $100 for the beginning workshop to $250 a semester for the advanced program; many students unable to pay the fee receive scholarships.)

"It's a lot of hard work," said Harris, who started with the group in 1987. "You have to give up a lot--your friends, your social life--but I feel it's the best thing in town (for young performers)."

"The opportunity is there for everybody," Zaher added. "It just takes a conscious effort to make the decision to develop your abilities and . . . an attitude of cooperation and personal maturity."

Ross Pallone, head engineer and studio producer at GTS Records, made the decision to use Rock Theatre singers on the label's new Christmas album, which also features the Encore Chorus and the Paulist Boy Choristers.

"Rock Theatre was a pleasure to work with," Pallone said. "They're great singers and they work hard. When I auditioned them, I was very impressed--I wanted to get their sound on a record."

Some performance programs for youth stress self-esteem rather than professional career training; Rock Theatre's advanced programs do the latter. That is why, Holford said, "I require all staff members to be working members of the profession. Because we're so in touch, it keeps the kids in touch, so they have a chance to get out there and compete against the real pros out there."

Choreographer Julie Bond is a case in point. Her recent credits include the role of Mrs. Potiphar in "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" on Broadway and at the Pantages. Slender and pretty, with a chiseled dancer's body, Bond has been with the company for eight years.

Her reason for staying? "With all the people who've worked with me, I think it's important that I give something back. If they're willing to put in the work, I'll give all I can."

* "Rock Theatre in Concert," Paramount Studios, Soundstage 10, Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m. Also Aug. 27, Sept. 1, 8 p.m.; Aug. 28, 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 2, Sept. 11, 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 10, 2 and 8 p.m. $6, $10, $15; (818) 768-2037, (213) 956-2503.

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