In a packed rehearsal room a few floors above the massive stage at Radio City Music Hall, 13-year-old Alyssa Casson walked to a spot in front of a panel of judges and paused, preparing to sing.
How hard could this be? After all, she had already battled cancer. She had already endured dozens of difficult medical procedures and years of doctor visits and the loss of her hair. So she opened her mouth.
What came out was a pretty wonderful version of Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful." When she was finished, it was time for the judges to weigh in. It was time for them to gulp back strong emotions.
"I thought it was just amazing and it really touched me," said a clearly moved Derrick Baskin, a Broadway actor whose credits include "The Little Mermaid," "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and who is currently in "Memphis."
"One thing I would work, though, is right before the song starts, to just take a big breath and plant your feet. When you're onstage, there's no one more important than you. OK? They're here to see you. And you can deliver, obviously."
"Thank you," said Alyssa, beaming.
Alyssa is one of 20 acts picked from hundreds for the annual Garden of Dreams talent show, which gives kids who have faced illness, homelessness, poverty or tragedy an opportunity to perform in front of family and friends on the Radio City main stage. This year's show will be held April 5 and admission is free.
A panel of celebrity mentors was assembled to coach the budding singers, magicians, rappers, dancers and musicians. In addition to Baskin, the panel included Justin Johnston of "Rent," Christina Sajous of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," Tony Vincent of "American Idiot" and TV's "The Voice" and three professional dancers _ Danelle Morgan and Corinne Tighe, both Rockettes, and LaToya Brooks, a Knicks City Dancer.
For an afternoon earlier this month, the young performers and their parents tried to hide their fears _ and the judges tried to hide their emotions _ as talented young people who have survived trauma stepped up to be critiqued.
The acts ranged from Sean Burke, a 14-year-old magician in a tux from Midland Park, N.J., who made rods disappear and reappear from under a handkerchief, to Corey Robinson, a 17-year-old rapper from New York, who boasted that he would "hit it really big and start acting Hollywood." One performer _ Alicia Fournier, 13, of Scarborough, Maine, seems destined for Broadway: From a little frame came a confident and strong song from "Thoroughly Modern Millie" that drew a huge applause.
One of the youngest performers was 10-year-old pianist Elizabeth Burns, who performed Beethoven's "Fur Elise." Elizabeth, from Toms River, N.J., only started playing piano three years ago and said she picked the Beethoven song because it's her favorite classical piece. She was nominated by the Make-A-Wish Foundation after surviving two kidney transplants and a liver transplant.
What was her wish? "I wished that I could take my mom and dad on a great vacation," she said, her mother beaming beside her. To where? "From New Jersey to Paris."
Noelle Dadon, 13, from Fort Lee, N.J., sang Pink's "Glitter in the Air" and stunned the judges. The middle school student who adores Adam Lambert has suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, glaucoma, uveitis and Tourette syndrome. None of that seemed to affect her voice.
"Wow. My goodness. I really don't have any advice, vocally. Your voice is absolutely spectacular. The depth and richness and tone that you have in your voice is an absolute gift," said Vincent.
"I'm going home. You have my job," said Sajous.
Caroline Sakovits, 8, from Washington Township, N.J., danced to "The Shoop, Shoop Song (It's in His Kiss)," and provoked envy from the dancers on the panel. "You're so little but you've got these long, beautiful legs," said Morgan in awe. "You're all legs. I'm very jealous."
Caroline, two-time survivor of pediatric cancer, has been dancing since she was 3 _ and it showed. "You've got some great feet on you, sister girl," said Tighe. "You want to make sure that you're using all of that space, keeping your chin up and smiling really big. Great job, sweetheart."
During a break, Vincent fought back emotions. "I expected I would feel a lot of compassion. I didn't know that I'd be moved this way," he said. "It's not just the charity thing. I'm blown away at their talent."
The shows started in 2006 by the nonprofit charity Garden of Dreams Foundation, which uses talent from the various parts of The Madison Square Garden Co. _ the New York Knicks, Rangers, Liberty, MSG Entertainment, MSG Network and Fuse, among them _ to help children facing obstacles. Participants are put forward by partner organizations _ like the Make-A-Wish Foundation or Children's Aid Society _ children's hospitals and various community-based groups.
Hank J. Ratner, the president and CEO of The Madison Square Garden Co., calls the Garden of Dreams "the most meaningful thing we do." He added: "We do it because we should do it. What's so wonderful about it is that it makes everybody involved happy about being involved."
Backstage, Alyssa, the girl who sang "Beautiful," said she was excited to sing on the Radio City stage. She has beaten rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare soft muscle tissue cancer, and chose the Aguilera song for very personal reasons.
"When I was going through cancer, a lot of the girls were starting to worry about appearance. When you get to be my age, they're all about, `Let's do our hair,'" said the girl from Prospect, Conn. But cancer treatment had ravaged her hair.
"I just didn't feel very beautiful. I didn't feel myself anymore. It was very heartbreaking. But when I listen to the song, I was like, `Wow. I'm beautiful, no matter what anybody says and what anybody thinks. I'm going to be me, and that's beautiful in its own way.'"
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