Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Next Step Is Already A Hit

Mt taxi speeds through the busy streets of Scarborough as I'm trying to explain to the taxi driver why I'm going to a recently shuttered high school.
"It's for a new TV series shooting there," I explain.
No response.
"The title is The Next Step," I say and the car practically screeches to a halt.
"That's my grandson's favorite show," he hollers. "Say can you get me some autographs?"
I had the same reaction from a doctor friend who told me her preteen son was glued to the set watching this series.
"Now he wants to be a dancer," she screams. Obviously she was hoping for med school.
Once there I wander through the strangely empty corridors of Timothy Eaton Technical School, a massive complex that catered to kids who couldn't make it in regular schools.
"Where are they now?" I ask a lonely janitor.
"Shipped to composite high schools where they flunk out" is his terse reply.
The huge classrooms are all deserted --the catering school, the small engines complex. But as I wander deeper into this bunker I'm hearing singing and dancing.
And as I turn a corner I see a TV crew hurrying about shifting giant lights and an assistant director bawling "Quiet!"
I'm deep in the heart of The Next Step which last year was Canadian TV's most unexpected new hit.
It's not a major network show but instead runs on Family Channel.
And most kids in a Grade Six Class I was speaking to a few weeks ago seemed acutely aware of every plot development.
First though: these dancing teenagers are really teens and not the thirtysomethings who populate similar U.S. network efforts
Season One revved up on Family on March 2013.
"Suddenly everyone at my school wanted to say hi and talk about the show," laughs Victoria Baldesarra (she plays Michelle).
"It hadn't hit me until I walked down the school hall and every body nodded and smiled."
The second half of season one which will run 16 half hour episodes premieres Friday September 20 at 7 p.m. on Family.
In the mid-season finale Baldesarra replaced Alexandra Beaton (as Emily) as dance captain.
Yet here I was chatting up both of them and they smiled and giggled as each other spoke.
Beaton thinks she has the best role on the show --and she's right. She's stunning as the conniving, devious Emily but already such a good actress she can make us understand Emily's ups and downs.
"I don't consider her a nasty person. I'm trying to make viewers understand her. She's a controlling person because she feels insecure. And remember she has a lot of talent."
Unlike many of the other regulars Beaton considered herself more an actress than dancer. "I'd danced earlier but then I got Emily and I'm back dancing trying to get back on track."
The plot follows the regulars at the fictional Next Step Dance Studio --members of both the "A" troupe and "B" troupe.
After the first season was filmed Brennan Clost (Daniel) enrolled in prestigious Julliard School in New York city.
"My dad drove me down, it was a great first year. I feel I'm more challenged by this second year and I certainly am better in the acting."
Clost jokes that people from his old high school are now texting him all the time to get together. "But I remember who was friendly and who was not."
Isaak Lupien (Eldon)  says he had struggles early on in his desire to be a dancer.
"Maybe I was a bit immature when I started out but I've really grown into it. I had a back injury early on and it was suggested I might take a lighter load in the dancing. But I danced through the pain because this is what I wanted to do."
Says Lamar Johnson (West) : "I thought I was moving into acting before this part came up. Now I'm back dancing and trying to keep up. My role might be described as comedy relief. It's what I'm good at."
"Now we're all better," says Trevor Tordjman (James). "We're more focused and more at ease with the acting. At least I am."
During luncheon break I watched the young cast whoop it up.  They all ate huge portions because they're at it almost continually --besides strenuous dance routines there are rehearsals for the next routine.
I was also privileged to watch one of the new episodes containing surprising revelations about the romances between the dances. But I'm honor bound not to reveal plot points here.
Incredibly as it seems an entire episode is shot every 1 1/2 days. It's a one camera show and when I chatted up director Frank van Keeken he said working with an extremely young and inexperienced cast was "A real challenge. They don't need to be energized, they have all the energy in the world. "
Although each cast member plays a character with a different name van Keeken says "They are essentially playing themselves. It's not scripted, the interviews,  we stick these into the stories. I try to make them feel at ease and I'll go multiple takes until we all are satisfied."
"Those interviews, it was difficult for me at the beginning," agrees Beaton. "I think I'm learning from it. And it really makes the show, helps the story."
Plot details hone in on the obsessions of teens: how are they interacting with peers, how competitive should they be, are they liked by others.
The themes seem to touch raw nerves with the young audience. All the dancers/actors say they've been overwhelmed by the fan reaction. The day I visited several youngsters had gotten on set and were awe struck at meeting their heroes.
BBC World Wide has picked the show up for syndication and an American sale seems imminent.
Executive producer David Fortier  says The Next Step is in line with other series his company Temple Street Productions  has made including Queer as Folk and Being Erica.
Already a hit with kids The Next Step is growing into a show for the whole family.

MY RATING: ***1/2.

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