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MORNING SENTINEL ONLINE Monday, January 30, 2006

Fame under the lights Musical's cast brings local talent to Opera House
Staff Writer
Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Staff photo by Jeff Pouland

The cast of "Fame, the Musical'' rehearses a song at the Waterville Opera House on Friday night. Front row left to right is Meli de Bethune, Gretchen Elliot and Sarah Klomparens. The show opens Friday February 10 at 7:30 p.m..

WATERVILLEWhen "Fame, the Musical" comes to the Opera house next month, audiences may be assured they'll see more than just fiction playing out on stage.

The show is about an energetic group of youths from disparate backgrounds converging on 46th Street to audition for study at the New York High School of Performing Arts -- and their ensuing struggles and successes after being accepted.

Members of the "Fame" cast can relate. Some have studied performing arts in college; some are high school students active in the performing arts and heading for college to study the same; and others are working hard to pursue their dream of seeing their names in lights.

By all accounts, the talent packing the Opera House stage for "Fame" is tremendous -- not just a handful of outstanding performers carrying the show.

The large number of skilled cast members is the result of strong theater programs in area high schools, availability of community theater and a dedication to promoting the performing arts in central Maine, say those affiliated with the show.

"Our theater arts and music and dance teachers in the area continue to work at providing opportunities for these students," says "Fame" director Debra Susi. "They are the real heroes, those teachers, because of what they do, year in and year out, without adequate subsidies."

Susi, who also is director of theater arts at both Maine Central Institute and Warsaw Middle School, says students coming out of schools now have had strong training in the performing arts, something former President Bill Clinton espoused.

"I think we're reaping some of the benefits over the last 10 years of policies and procedures in schools that supported theater and music," she said.

And while the focus has shifted as a result of No Child Left Behind from performance-based activities to teaching and assessment, teachers still are dedicated to instilling in youth the importance of the performing arts, she says.

Nic Jewell, 26, of Skowhegan, is the product of a strong theater program at Skowhegan Area High School, which traditionally wins awards in speech and drama competitions.

Jewell, a member of the "Fame" chorus, graduated from SAHS in 1997, went on to Hofstra University to study theater and in 2001 graduated with a degree in theater performance.

He has done work with the Bicoastal Playwright Festival in New York and the Pawtucket (R.I.) Community Players and has performed in local theater, including Lakewood Theater in Madison and the former Park Street Players in Skowhegan.

Finding work in the business is not easy -- and he makes a living from other jobs such as waiting on tables-- but being in theater is a pursuit to which Jewell is dedicated.

"It's a tough road to follow," he said. "If you've got the dream, you can't give up on it. I'm certainly not going to give up. It takes time and you never know when your time is going to happen."

Jewell, who loves Shakespearean roles best, attributes his skill and determination to Skowhegan high school Drama Director Robin Lisherness.

"He has such a love for the performing arts himself," Jewell said. "He just made work seem so much fun."

At a rehearsal last week, Jewell and others dominated the stage with singing and dance. Holly Wietecha, the show's choreographer, also plays Carmen, the lead role. Like Carmen, the fictional character, Wietecha remembers studying dance at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where she dreamed of seeing her name in lights. After graduating, she auditioned for shows, taught at a ballet school in Wisconsin and did a lot of choreography. What she realized was that most directors wanted toothpick thin dancers -- a state to which she did not aspire.

"It really hit me that I can be happy in Maine," she said. "It was a great experience, but I found if you aren't built like Barb, they overlook you."

At 28, Wietecha is happy performing in community theater and working at a wellness center in Augusta; teaching at her mother, Keltie Collins' business, Kennebec Dance Center in Augusta; teaching in the dance program she started at University of Maine at Augusta; and working as dance director and coach at Thomas College.

Like Jewell, Wietecha credits her high school experiences (at Cony High School in Augusta) as influential in her career. For more than 120 years, Cony has had Chizzle Wizzle, a variety-minstrel talent show she was involved in all four years, she said.

"And throughout Maine there are a lot of big names in dance as well as music and vocal training, and you have places like the Waterville Opera House, Lakewood Theater, the Theater at Monmouth..." she said.

Gretchen Elliott, 21, of Hartland plays Mabel in "Fame." Her exquisite voice resonates throughout the Opera House.

A graduate of Nokomis High School in Newport, Elliott last year graduated from University of Maine at Farmington where she majored in elementary education with a concentration in theater and performing arts. The day after the final "Fame" curtain falls, Elliott will head to Danforth, to start a theater program and teach second grade.

While in high school, Elliott was in chorus, played musical instruments, sang and was the lead in shows including "Hello Dolly." Elliott credits theater and music directors, who have a passion for teaching, with helping youths develop skills and passion for the performing arts.

Bridget Campbell of Winslow is working on production, box office management, marketing and public relations for FAME. She also plays a janitor and lunchroom lady in the show.

A graduate of both Waterville Senior High School and University of Southern Maine, Campbell has been active in theater 15 years. Many of the students who come through the Opera House plan futures in performance, including singer Greer Vashon and pianist Chris Ganza, both Waterville High School seniors. Vashon plays Serena in "Fame"; Ganza is pianist for the musical.

Campbell, like Opera House Executive Director Diane Bryan, cite drama directors at area schools among influences that steer students to careers in performing arts.

"Plus, there's the opportunity of the Waterville Opera House and Bossov Ballet and some other small theater groups in the area, like ACAT, and the groups we have here in the summer and in February for children," Campbell said.

Amy Calder -- 861-9247

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