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Exponential potential

The TADA! Program in New York provides professional-level experience to kids. The goal: to help them tap the best of themselves.

July 29, 2007|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

New York — IT'S a noisy and emotional opening-night party for a new musical, the kind of bash you'd expect for most Broadway or off-Broadway shows: The beaming author enters the room to cheers and applause. The director happily accepts congratulations from the crowd, and the choreographer looks serenely content.

But the jubilant cast members, who are enmeshed in a sea of hugs, make this night different. Most will be leaving soon -- and not to hit the downtown clubs. Their parents will be giving them rides home because they're much too young to drive.

"Omygod!" says one teenage actress, gobbling a cookie as she heads out. "We did it!"

When "The Gumball Gang: Crime-Solving Kids" premiered July 5, it marked yet another triumph for TADA! (Theater and Dance Alliance), one of the nation's most distinctive youth theaters. Unlike the vast majority of these companies -- which feature adults performing for children, or a mixture of adults and children -- TADA! commissions and stages new musicals that are performed entirely by a multicultural kids' ensemble. These shows, produced by full-time professionals in a small theater 14 blocks from the Great White Way, are played in front of paying audiences and typically run for 30 performances, far more than a regular high school musical.

Children's theater is enjoying a renaissance across the nation, with highly praised groups in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, Seattle, Minneapolis, Detroit, New York and Washington, D.C., to name just a few centers. But TADA!'s tradition of putting children squarely in the spotlight, with sophisticated professional support, "is highly uncommon today, very unusual," said Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, a national service organization for American nonprofit theaters.

At a time when growing numbers of kids are bitten by the performing bug, lured by the promise of "American Idol" celebrity, plus TV, movies and Broadway itself, the little nonprofit theater on West 28th Street has a different priority: It wants members to thrive as actors -- and young people -- in a community. And the goal is not to turn them into stars.

"We try to make this as professional an experience as possible," said Janine "Nina" Trevens, the artistic and executive director who co-founded the group 23 years ago. "But I also wanted TADA! to change kids' lives -- to give them a second home. They often don't get this in school, and we're like a second family for them."

Getting into the group's 79-member ensemble is a rigorous process. This fall, kids ages 8 to 18 will spend two days auditioning to show off their dancing, acting and singing skills. Those who are called back enter a weeklong workshop, where their personal drive and ability to get along with others in a group will be screened. Some 400 to 500 children are expected to vie for 10 to 20 spots. And even that doesn't guarantee they will have a role in a production, because separate tryouts are held for each of the three shows TADA! performs each season. For those who are cast, there are rehearsals of 17 hours a week, including weekends. But the price is right: All of the instruction they get, plus outings to Broadway shows, is free.

Trevens, 46, an alternately soft-spoken woman and passionate advocate for children's theater, doesn't suffer fools. She runs the group with a nurturing heart and a firm hand. If kids are late for too many rehearsals, they're out. If they don't respect each other and their teachers, they're history. "When you cast a show, you create a family," she said. "We push the kids hard, but we also care about them as people."

'Love you!' they shout

IT'S June, and rehearsals are beginning for "The Gumball Gang." TADA!'s cramped offices are swarming with children from all corners of the city. They're classic theater kids -- passionate, pent-up, over-the-top -- who spend any spare moments humming show tunes, reviewing dialogue and practicing ballet steps. They gossip about who got what part in the show. It's a beehive of camaraderie and competition.

"Love you!" they shout, after the rehearsals. "Call me tonight!"

Some would go home to pricey co-ops, others to housing projects. They come from African American, Latino, Asian and white families, a jumble of kids who have become each other's best friends. While other children their age enjoy a more leisurely summer outdoors, these kids are spending their time in a darkened theater, rehearsing a new show.

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