Show Time for Rug Rats

An audition for America's Most Talented Kid turns up some prodigies, and some very young has-beens.

More than a few of your neighbors dream about helping their darling little Tiffany become the next Shirley Temple. We know this because of the legions of would-be stage moms and dads who showed up recently to audition their ankle-biters for America's Most Talented Kid, NBC's latest attempt to challenge Fox's megahit, American Idol. The auditions took place in the main ballroom of the Grand Hyatt hotel, in downtown San Francisco.

The show's producers are looking for kids between the ages of 3 and 15, and NBC casting director Matt Vener, one of two judges for the auditions, is at pains to distinguish his operation from the deliciously brutal American Idol. "We don't harass the kids on our show," he says. "We're not gonna tell them that they're not going to be anything at 4 years old. ... What we do is compliment them for being here. Even if they're not good, we tell them they are."

Dog Bites, of course, has no such compunction.

We grab a primo seat near the judges, and the auditions begin. First up is 10-year-old Mickey Barera, a guitarist from San Jose. The kid's surprisingly good, to the point that we suspect a radio is behind the giant speaker his father set up. But it takes all of two minutes before we're getting a migraine from his energetic heavy-metal oeuvre.

Next up is Eric Rapinchuk, a 10-year-old hoofer who forgets his choreography and decides to fake his way through "You Really Got Me." His performance is the first in a seemingly endless string of numbers by pint-size tap dancers that can only be described as Sammy Davis' Revenge.

Twenty kids later, a dancer withouttaps finally arrives. But 8-year-old Autumn doesn't really need metal plates on her shoes. She attacks the stage, stomping and pounding and leaping about in some sort of mutant Flashdance routine. It's like watching Mini-Me trying to perform ballet. We shiver and wonder if the stage will survive.

Finally 7-year-old Lisa Woods of Castro Valley takes the stage. Done up in an Elvis Presley costume, the kid's cute-as-a-button factor is off the charts. She too is a tap dancer, and we're trying not to hold it against her. But when she goes into her Gregory Hines imitation, we've got to admit: She's damn good.

The judges agree. In fact, they're fussing over her so much we're worried how much attention they're going to pay her 12-year-old sister, Erika, who's next. Erika's face is a mask of pressure and concentration. She wears a black sequined top hat and tuxedo-style jumpsuit. It's obvious that she's going to have to tap the bejesus out of the stage to get noticed at this point. And she pretty much does, hitting every mark and executing high kicks that give Dog Bites a touch of vertigo. After 90 seconds of watching Erika give her all, the enthralled judges make her their second "instant pick," green-lighting her for a videotaped audition with the show's big cheeses in Burbank.

Exit dancers, enter singers. This new group looks like the attack of the sequined munchkins -- sequined top hats, boots, and T-shirts (honestly, parents, can't we just say no to sequins?). And one thing's certain: If these kids are any indication, Britney Spears' career may be in serious trouble, because Christina Aguilera is queen here. We're subjected to so many versions of "Beautiful" and "Reflections" that we start wanting to hit ourselves in the head with a mallet.

The torture doesn't end there. A 12-year-old boy strides to the stage like Mighty Casey taking the plate and attempts to sing Michael Jackson's "I'll Be There" -- a bold move for a kid whose voice has changed. Needless to say, he too strikes out.

The next human sacrifice is a 13-year-old boy who sports a Gucci jogging suit, a telltale sign that a hip hop performance can't be far behind. Sure enough, he launches into "Nelly's Hot in Herre," and the room does indeed heat up. We mean, is there anything more disturbing than watching an adolescent boy belt out the line: "What good is all the fame if you ain't fuckin' the models?"

A hundred more kids wrestle unsuccessfully with the bitch goddess of fame. Then we're treated to Kayla Rodgers, a 13-year-old African-American glamour girl from Martinez. She's got the kind of face the camera loves, and her stage presence is awesome. She also looks 27, with a body that Pam Grier would kill for. Her rendition of "Fever" is so sultry that the two male judges seem to develop a little fever of their own.

She's far from Shirley Temple, but she's as good as signed before she opens her seductive little mouth for the second chorus.

 
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