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YOUNGSTERS BECOME STARS FOR A NIGHT

It was the stuff of countless Busby Berkeley dreams. At the Mark Taper Forum on Monday night unknowns got a chance to prove they were stars.

The excitement before curtain was tangible. Late arriving performers leaped in exuberance, slapping metal umbrellas on outdoor tables, adding the clanking to the clamor of laughter and shouts.

How would all that energy be channeled? For these performers were children--non-professionals. More than 100 fourth to sixth-graders gathered to present “Sir Vival Sweepstakes: A Winner’s Tale,” sponsored by the National Dance Institute, Performing Tree, the Mark Taper Forum and the Los Angeles Unified School District, under the guidance of artistic director Tony Abatemarco.

Students from the four participating schools (Hoover Street, Lenicia B. Weemes Elementary, Wilbur Avenue Elementary and Halldale Avenue Elementary) took their places. The audience of family, friends and press formed a receptive crowd.

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This was a night for magic. It began with a warm and informal welcome from Gordon Davidson, artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum, who said no matter what the night’s outcome or the undetermined value of the program, “we’ve already been touched by the involvement.”

Councilman Joel Wachs repeated the words of the evening’s inspiration, Jacques d’Amboise, founder and director of the National Dance Institute, whose program in New York was the subject of the 1984 Academy Award-winning, “You Make Me Feel Like Dancin’ ”: “Professional artists are concerned with excellence; children are going to be what they’re exposed to. If they think junk, they’ll be junk.”

D’Amboise spoke to the children: “I’m so delighted you’re here--and you’re gonna be great. Tonight belongs to you.” It was show time.

A typhoon (blue pompons, windy sound effects) left the “Sir Vival Sweepstakes” winners marooned on a deserted island, and no one could agree on the best method of survival. What to do?

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The show, conceived, written and directed by Abatemarco, Jose de Vega, Leon Martell, Nobuko Miyamoto and Mimi Seton was fast-paced. Music (provided by Arranger Gregg Johnson, Rob Miller and Larry Stein) and lyrics by Miyamoto and Seton conveyed the message that despite diversity we can live together.

There were no cliches. It was all fresh and new. The voices were loud and clear, punch lines were well-timed, dance routines were smooth, a testament to six months of painstaking planning.

And the magic took over. Tentativeness gave way to confidence; faces and bodies were alive with the pleasure of performing well.

Guest artists John Ritter, in a duo role as Narrator and Sea Captain; Bill Hutton as the Surfer; Louise Kawabata as the Stag and Robert Englund as the Poison Skunkupine, made brief appearances, enhancing, not overwhelming, the action.

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After the standing ovation and delighted familial applause, performers stood on stage, and gradually, small faces reflected the realization that it was over.

The stated purpose of the project was to introduce young people to the arts through the theatrical process. D’Amboise hopes it does more: “If children are involved in the arts at an early age, they will be involved all their lives.”

Only the years will tell. But the certainty is that these children were exposed to excellence--and reached for it themselves.


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