98 degrees of separation

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Just when you thought there wasn't room on the charts for another Orlando-bred purveyor of cookie-cutter pop, along come 50 more sugar-coated aspirants eager to prove that they, too, Want It That Way ... in the worst way.

They were out in force Thursday at Underdog Productions, a new rehearsal/production facility on the west side of town. Responding to a series of print and radio ads, auditioners aged 17 to 24 arrived to participate in a national talent search undertaken by SunTone Productions, a German firm seeking a quintet of American heartthrobs it could "develop" back home.

But instead of being greeted by a monocled ex-Nazi shouting "Und AGAIN!" as he strove to engineer the boy band from Brazil, the fellas were welcomed by managing director Michael Deaver, a wavy-haired music-business veteran dressed in black knee-length shorts. Deaver's informality provided an oasis of calm as they handed in their exhaustive application forms.

"Who are your idols?" the questionnaire probed. "Would you undergo a drug test? Would you be willing to have a roommate?"

Taped music pumped as the hopefuls took to the floor for the morning's dance rehearsal. Number tags pinned to their mall-bought B-boy sportswear made it easier to identify the standouts, many of whom were otherwise impossible to tell apart. Plenty sported the latest variation on the Caesar haircut, in which the top is dyed blond while the back and sides are left brown for that corn-muffin look.

"Don't travel too much!" shouted choreographer Marise Fleitas, a member of SunTone group Sista Sista. "Watch your personalities!" (I wish I could say that to half the people I meet.)

Outta sync

Struggling to keep up, a blond youngster near the back darted his eyes from his neighbors to his own leaden feet. He always seemed to be going left when everyone else was going right. Fleitas announced a refresher run-through for "the guys who are really lost," and he sensibly took part. It didn't help one bit.

Two spaces away, a Hispanic-looking hoofer generated a buzz with his smooth steps and boundless energy. After nailing his routines, the obvious pro retreated to the sidelines and strapped on a Walkman to review his backing tape for the vocal auditions. This kid was the real deal.

He was also one of the few whose mothers waited in the outer offices. Though I had expected a flock of stage moms to push their child prodigies into auditioning, an Underdog staffer told me that most of the phone calls instead came from ambitious girlfriends "hoping to be taken along for the ride" if their beaus were chosen as tomorrow's pinups. Those girls need to have their heads examined.

Watching with a bemused eye was Criss Ruiz of hometown pop outfit Boyz N Girlz United. Having climbed on the bubblegum wagon three years ago, Ruiz was relieved to have avoided the "cattle call" going on around her. I asked if these kids knew what they were getting into.

"They have no idea," she swore.

"She's been lucky," clarified her father, Louie Ruiz, a former musician and New York City detective who was now handling groups at Underdog Entertainment -- the facility's in-house talent division. "I've been telling her exactly what to do."

All cried out

Some 15 contestants made the cut for the afternoon's vocal tryouts, but as soon as they opened their mouths, the house of cards collapsed. Most were all style and no substance, their practiced, choked-back sobs failing to compensate for tone deafness that was unsuitable even for the Top 40.

The Hispanic groove machine was no better, quickly and surprisingly proving that he couldn't carry a tune in a valise. Should the SunTone folks have used the singing portion to weed out the insufficient, instead of the dancing?

"We want to see memory retention," Deaver said. "Because time is money."

Stopgap measures were called for, so last-minute arrivals were allowed to run through their paces. The mood brightened when a strapping Hawaiian sauntered into the room. An undeniable presence emanated from his smiling, marquee-idol countenance as he effortlessly flew through his steps, pumping his arms in the air with the aid of biceps that were as large as some of the other kids' heads.

He had charisma. He was ethnic. He could sing well enough. And the women were swooning. He got a callback.

After the day was over, I asked Deaver what he thought of the turnout.

"You would think that with Disney and Universal ...," he faltered, trying not to cast aspersions on our fair city's talent pool. "This is a learning process for a lot of people," he finally diagnosed, "and we take that into consideration."

He wasn't worried. In just four days, his operation was moving on to Miami, where a whole new group of dreamers waited to play games with his heart.

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