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40 Audition to Play Disney Characters at Tokyo Theme Park


VAN NUYS — Nervously clutching sheet music with their favorite show tunes, a group of about 40 young women filed one by one Monday into a dance studio that was empty but for a table, several folding chairs and a piano.

With a lone accompanist, these hopefuls had about a minute to open their lungs and bare their creative souls to wow the panel of judges who had come to the Van Nuys Performing Arts Center from Tokyo Disneyland looking for a fresh crop of singers and dancers.

In the grand scheme of things, it was not exactly on a par with the chance to audition for a Broadway musical. But the payoff is an opportunity to perform professionally in the summer job of a lifetime, said Jim Ames, one of the company's audition coordinators.

"I think people like to audition for Disney because it's a little less scary," said Ames. "We want them to do well."

Disney holds auditions for its Japanese theme park twice a year, in May and October. The Los Angeles area, show biz capital notwithstanding, is only one stop on a talent tour that makes the rounds of about a half dozen American cities.

But these tryouts are not charity. The judges are intent on evaluating talent. And they know it the moment they see it, they contend.

"They are basically auditioning the minute they step through the door," said choreographer Scott Fowler. "You can see their training, personality and presentation."

Added Stacey Johnson, a casting director for Walt Disney World in Orlando: "Some people come in thinking they can be a Mickey or a Minnie. But we're looking for triple threats: people who can sing, dance and act."

The performers hired will be portraying characters from recent Disney films, such as "The Little Mermaid."

Some who began in Disney shows have gone on to star in Broadway musicals, from "Cats" to "Rent," Johnson said. Leanza Cornett, a former Little Mermaid at Disney World, became Miss America in 1992 and was a reporter for "Entertainment Tonight," she said.

Those who make the cut are signed to contracts for six to 10 months' work. They receive hotel accommodations while in Japan, transportation to and from work and paychecks topping $800 a week.

Those were selling points to many of the 100 aspirants, most in their teens and early 20s, who showed up Monday. But for some, the Disney name was enough.

"Anything to do with Disney, I want to do," said Nicole Vinzant, 21, who traveled from Alta Loma after seeing the Disney casting call on a college bulletin board. Vinzant sang "Home" from the musical "Phantom of the Opera."

"This is my dream," said Vinzant, who has taken singing lessons since she was 14.

Others, like Amy Villa-Girton, 22, of Huntington Beach, were more circumspect.

Having recently auditioned for a television show with 500 other women, she observed: "A lot of it's who you know. But this is something I really want. The people that have more fun are going to get farther."

Then there was the prospect of seeing another part of the world by performing at the 14-year-old theme park just outside Tokyo.

"I'm kind of nervous about that," said Christy Guthrie, a college student and aspiring singer from Anaheim by way of Visalia. "It would be culture shock. At the same time, I think it would be fun."

The 40 contestants were swiftly winnowed to four. And after an impromptu session with pianist Jan Jordan, Eden Espinoza, 19, of Calabasas and Katie Alexander, 21, were selected as finalists. But that doesn't mean they're on the plane for Japan yet.

They have more auditions to go, competing against finalists from around the country. "If they love to perform, they'll succeed," Johnson said. "But they have to have the training. And most important the personality."

Auditions for male singers and dancers continue through today at the Van Nuys Performing Arts Center at 15934 Strathern St., near Woodley Avenue.

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