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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Taking the Stage'

It's compelling viewing on MTV as performing arts students dance, sing and dazzle their way through an arts-centric school.

March 19, 2009|ROBERT LLOYD | TELEVISION CRITIC

In the opening scene of "Taking the Stage," two young women in leotards discuss their aches and pains.

"So now my back is, like, shot."

"The things we do for dance."

"Look at the alignment of my toes, that's gross."

It is such small, unglamorous, particular moments that make me enormously fond of this new reality musical from MTV, set at Cincinnati's School for Creative and Performing Arts, an institution that we are told "has produced many famous performers from Sarah Jessica Parker to Nick Lachey." Lachey, the boy band singer, reality TV star and game show host, "conceptualized" the series, which is intended to read as a real-life "Fame" and tracks "five seniors, on the cusp of greatness" over a 10-episode arc.

Premiering tonight, the series follows the method of "The Hills," and "Laguna Beach" before it -- production veterans of those shows are onboard here -- in leaving out the usual spot interviews and video diaries and polishing the footage to look more like a drama than a documentary. Still, it's important that we see these kids as the real thing and for all their rare drive and talent, they are, indeed, clearly kids and really real.

Outside hands have been busy, of course, from the conception to the casting to placing the characters in such a way as to keep the sightlines clear. And if they are not told what to say, it's nevertheless clear that they are asked to discuss certain things at certain times. Did the producers, thinking of "Fame" and various iterations and imitations of "High School Musical," suggest that a dance-off in the cafeteria might be a good thing to have happen? Possibly -- I would think probably -- but when it happens, it feels spontaneous, and what occurs is as good a musical number as I've seen anywhere in some time, full of energy and joy and half-friendly aggression. There is nothing the least stock about it, and when the next Emmys roll around, the academy would do well just to wind these kids up and let them go.

The show was clearly conceived to maximize visual potential and to reflect the interests and fantasies of the MTV audience: Four of the five principals are in the dance department, and in the first episode, at least, that means a little ballet and a lot of hip-hop; the fifth is a singer-songwriter girl in an age of singer-songwriter girls. And given that the emotional interplay is what matters here -- more than a picture of life inside a school for the arts -- the show is liable to give more weight to the dream than to the discipline, except as the discipline advances the dream.

Such a narrative as the first episode proffers is familiar and graspable. It boils down to mostly unrelated stories, both of which aim toward a climactic talent show to be attended by "mass talent scouts." One involves new kid Tyler, a hip-hop dancer looking for some ballet training -- though perhaps not looking hard enough -- who catches the eye of top ballerina Jasmine and becomes the rival-in-dance of Jasmine's best friend, Malik. ("She's out of your league, buddy," Tyler's friend JJ says of Jasmine.)

The other follows Mia, who writes songs full of pained teenage urgency and whose dream is to get signed by age 18 -- that young girls still dream of "getting signed," in a major label way even as that business rocks and reels, is kind of touching, though perhaps not as naive or quixotic as wanting to grow up to work on a newspaper. (For more on that, see last year's MTV high-school reality series, "The Paper.") They do teach journalism and creative writing at SCPA and, personally, I would like to spend some time with the classical musicians, the theater kids and the visual artists, but that's not what's on the program here.

Anyway, that's just reviewer talk. I pretty much loved it, is what I really want to say.

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robert.lloyd@latimes.com

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'Taking the Stage'

Where: MTV

When: 10 tonight

Rating: Not rated

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