Overflow crowds are flocking to the Danza Viva & Wednesday Journal Talent Search 2006 competition as the semi-finals start this week. Of the original 200 singers and dancers who auditioned, only 24 stage-struck contestants are left. This concentration of talent has resulted in venues swamped by spectators.

On May 4, for example, it was a tight fit at The Brown Cow in Forest Park, with enough heat generated by the singers to melt ice cream. Alyssa Allgood, wearing a flaming red dress, sang a scorching version of “Summertime.” The 13-year-old from Westmont performed her piano teacher’s original arrangement of the classic.

Allgood’s version wasn’t simply upbeat; it took off when she started skat-singing. “That’s the first song I’ve ever skatted on,” Allgood said. “I decided to come out of my shell.” The judges were duly impressed by her spontaneity and how she navigated the song’s difficult chord changes.

Allgood started singing in second grade, when she landed a solo in a fifth grade musical. She’s been taking voice lessons and hopes to someday attend a college with a strong music program. As for her own tastes, she says, “Jazz has a story behind it, and you have to be good at it.”

Allgood is hoping to win some dance lessons through Talent Search 2006. “I’m not a dancer but dance classes would help me get into high school musicals.”

Classic musicals are Marianna Oharenko’s favorite. The 10-year-old from Chicago’s Ukranian Village sang “Be Kind To Your Parents” from the musical Fanny. How did she pick it? “It had the funnest words in the song book, and I liked the melody, too.”

The audience and judges had the “funnest” time watching Oharenko’s performance, which included adorable expressions and eloquent gestures. She previously won over the judges with a performance at the Buzz Café, that left one of the judges asking, “Are you 35 years old?”

That may be because she’s already had a long career. “I’ve been humming since 1½, and I started singing lessons at 4.” She is a member of Chicago Children’s Choir and takes dance lessons on the side. Singing in public doesn’t make her nervous. “When I’m performing, I’m relaxed,” she said, “I figure they’re all here for me.”

Jesse Avila can also hum. The 14-year-old from Melrose Park hummed the intro to his soulful version of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” He also nailed every one of the song’s 26 “I know”s. Avila is the last man standing in the youth vocal competition, as the other surviving contestants are female.

A freshman at the Chicago Academy of the Arts, Avila gets up at 5 a.m. to catch the train to the inner-city academy. “It’s amazing. I love it,” Avila said of the school. “We work on academics until 1:30, then we have arts until 4:30.” The natural tenor is a voice major who’s been singing his whole life. His first big hit was singing the “Star Spangled Banner” at a sixth grade talent show. He later sang it for a slightly larger crowd at a White Sox game.

Getting back to musicals, Larissa May impressed the Brown Cow crowd with “A Bushel And A Peck” from Guys and Dolls. Wearing a pink blouse with matching headband, May had the perfect gestures and expressions to sell the song. She even engaged in some “Broadway skat.”

The 11-year-old from Western Springs has been singing since she was 5. She takes voice lessons and has performed in such far-flung places as Oak Lawn, Hinsdale and Forest Park.

As for the talent contest: “It’s been phenomenal,” she said. “The kids are real nice.” Besides singing, May is taking dance and acting lessons. She hopes to study musical theater in college.

It may have been a tight fit at The Brown Cow but it was nothing compared to the audience at Slaton’s Supper Club. How crowded was it? The police stopped the singing to clear all the standees from the room. After that, spectators took turns sitting down to hear their favorite singers.

They weren’t disappointed as Mara Dale took the stage to perform “Good Morning, Baltimore” from the musical Hairspray. The judges noted her expressive face, powerful voice and solid stage presence. (She even pantomimed a man “flashing” during the song).

The 16-year-old from River Forest got her first part in fourth grade. “It was one of those raise-your-hand things,” she recalled. Since then, the soprano has been taking voice lessons and appearing in musicals.

“Jazz and show tunes are my favorite,” said the sophomore from OPRF. She’s found “Talent Search 2006” to be a great experience. “I have to learn a song in a week and engage the audience and satisfy the judges.” She finds that the other contestants are “nice and friendly and fun to watch.”

Among the singers at Slaton’s who were fun to watch was Aaron Gordon. Wearing a cream-colored suit, Gordon did a spine-tingling take on an Al Green gospel song. Emily Goldberg showed off her sultry soprano on a sprightly show tune. Simone Woods swung on “Chain of Fools,” and Anastasia Pappageorge floated her smooth soprano over the lyrics to “Ain’t No Sunshine.”

When Renee Matthews took the microphone, dressed in white and wearing a gold belt, she showed off her rich lower register on the R&B ballad “Stay.” The judges were amazed that such a little person could have such a big voice.

The 17-year-old from Bolingbrook stands only 5-feet-4, but she is a giant talent. In fact, “Stay” is one of her original songs. The self-taught singer can’t identify the source of her talent. “I don’t know where I got it because no one else in my family can sing.”

Matthews started singing around the house when she was 3 and has been in talent shows singe age 5. None of the previous contests have been as enjoyable as “Talent Search 2006.”

“I’m having a great time,” she said, “The judges are super-nice and the contestants all love each other. It’s a very comfortable atmosphere.”

Matthews hopes to have a career in singing and has already dabbled in acting”appearing as an extra in a number of Hollywood productions. She likes R&B, Hip-Hop, and has even listened to her mother’s music. “Some of that old stuff is real catchy.”

“Catchy” would be a good word to describe “Talent Search 2006,” as the talent rises to the top and the venues overflow.

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball...