SAN JOSE -- Joo Jun took private singing lessons. Sarah Kuhs was three and wore a black tutu when she first sang in public. And Torii Chappron was singing as soon as she could talk. It's hard to say which came first.

But nobody ever paid them a penny for a song. So when the giant California's Great America amusement park in Santa Clara put out a casting call for summertime entertainers, the three San Jose State students jumped at the chance to perform at live on-campus in auditions sponsored by the park.

"I think I'm the least nervous one here," Jun said in a hallway outside a small, intimate theater. The talkative, friendly 22-year-old senior did some deep breathing exercises. "Yeah, this would be my first paid gig. Cool."

Kuhs and Chappron sat across from him in the hallway, trying to stay calm.

"I'm kind of freaking out," admitted Kuhs, a song and dance applicant.

Chappron, a singer, looked at her and said, "Actually, she's been freaking out since yesterday."

Inside the theater, Clayton Lawrence, Great America's entertainment manager, and his co-judges of talent sat at a small table set up on the stage, mere feet from the performers. The judges used to audition hundreds at a time at the park. But in recent years the park has cast a wider net and held tryouts at locations across Silicon Valley.

"We can tap different talent pools that way," Lawrence said. For example, San Jose State is strong on dance and acting, but West Valley College in Saratoga has one of the few opera programs around.


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The 37-year-old amusement park is looking to fill 2,500 jobs for the season, making Great America one of the valley's largest employers of teenagers and college students during summer. Most will work as technicians, cashiers, ticket takers, parking attendants and ride operators, but a vital part of the park's workforce are the talented singers, dancers and hosts for the daily live shows now featured at the park.

The San Jose State auditions were among the first and they were extensive and intimate. As the young, starry-eyed hopefuls waited in line, they agreed that gigs at Great America look great on resumes. Once known mostly for its harrowing, gravity-defying thrill rides, the park has expanded its live entertainment and now features Broadway-style musicals.

"Definitely, this helps your career," said Erin Ortegon, who won a singing job at the park last summer. At age 19, she's smitten by showbiz. "For my whole life, forever."

One of the first to audition, Ortegon, a petite blonde with a pink flower in her hair, nailed "Take Me or Leave Me," a song from "Rent," the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning rock musical. Impressed, the judges loved that she could be a so-called triple-threat -- a Broadway term for talented performers who can sing, dance and act.

Joo Jun, left, prepares for his audition for a casting call for Great America theme park for their various characters and dancers in Hall Todd Theatre at
Joo Jun, left, prepares for his audition for a casting call for Great America theme park for their various characters and dancers in Hall Todd Theatre at San Jose State University on Feb. 6, 2013. (Nhat V. Meyer/Staff)

Jun followed next. A theater arts major, he's minoring in child development studies just in case a career in show business doesn't pan out. After impressing the judges enough with his version of Bon Jovi's "It's My Life," they challenged him further.

Dolores Duran, the park's musical director, gave him the sheet music to "Luck be a Lady," one of Frank Sinatra's signature songs from the musical, "Guys and Dolls." Jun sang it well enough to be summoned back for the round of dancing.

"What, you want me to dance, too?" he beamed from the stage. "Sure, why not?"

At that point every kid looked like a sure thing, a future star, but as more singers tried out, a disturbing pattern emerged -- they were all pretty good, but they sounded the same.

In the words of Lawrence the entertainment director, "The singing was soft."

Need those pipes

According to talent judge Elizabeth Neipp, who is also the park's show director, young singers these days don't have the pipes to belt out Broadway standards like Ethel Merman, rock ballads like Mama Cass Elliot or Motown hits like Aretha Franklin.

"I've seen kids audition with songs that have only three notes," Neipp said. "That doesn't do anything for me."

It's a good argument for another day, but Neipp suggested that performing arts schools equip their students with larger and louder repertoires if they want to beat the competition.

After the last of the singers departed, three young dancers -- Marissa Dutra, Angelique Gorospe and Marissa Gomez -- took over the stage and wowed the judges, who asked them back for the final audition at the park later this month. Interestingly, the three students aren't dance majors.

"Oh, no! I'm a statistics major," Gorospe said, "but I have a passion for dance."

For a moment, at least, they contemplated the prospect of winning a summer job and then, one audition leading to another, moving on to Broadway, Hollywood, MTV and wondrous fame. Could they endure the rigors of such a life?

"Definitely!" said a beaming Gomez.

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767.

California's Great America auditions/interviews

Showtime Theatre, 4701 Great America Parkway, Santa Clara
February 16-17
9 a.m. -- Children's Show Hosts and Mucial Theater and Pop Singers
11 a.m. -- Dancers (Modern, Jazz and Hip Hop Styles) and Costume Characters
12:30 p.m. -- Theater and Event Technicians, Costumers and Dressers, Theater Attendants