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Singers make Top 20 in CBC reality show

At the age of four, Fiona McIntyre and Jennifer Gillis both fell in love with the character of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.

At the age of four, Fiona McIntyre and Jennifer Gillis both fell in love with the character of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.

McIntyre had seen the musical done by Coquitlam's Lindbjerg Academy of the Performing Arts and, when the lights went up at the end, she told her mother "I want to do that.

"That's when I got hooked on musical theatre," she recalled. "I loved Dorothy. I was her for Halloween one year, and I saw the movie nearly every week."

The songs were part of Gillis' early repertoire, too. Somewhere Over The Rainbow "has always been my favourite song to sing and forever will be," she said.

As they got older, the two Tri-City triple threats became close friends, taking classes at Lindbjerg and performing in shows together. They called each other sisters, Gillis said.

Now, the pair is in the role of their lives, competing for the chance to play Dorothy in Andrew Lloyd Webber's new production of The Wizard of Oz that is due to open in December in Toronto.

And their journey to portray the plum part - from the open call in Vancouver to making it into the Top 20 - will be broadcast nationally as part of a new CBC-TV reality show called Over The Rainbow, starting Sunday at 8 p.m.

It all started two months ago when hundreds of talented young women across Canada auditioned to be cast as Dorothy; only a few were picked to fly to Toronto for round two. From there, the competition whittled down to 20 potential Dorothys who were asked to return Aug. 20 for a week-and-a-half-long boot camp, called the Dorothy Farm, in Bethany Hills, Ont.

Part of that process involved working with choreographer Sean Cheesman (So You Think You Can Dance Canada), actor Cedric Smith (Road to Avonlea, the X-Men television series) and vocal coach Jeannie Wyse (The Sound of Music, Mamma Mia!) as well as an overseas audition before Webber, the English composer of such hit musicals as Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Jesus Christ Superstar.

The 20 Dorothy wannabes were invited to sing a solo and perform in groups, and Webber gave each of them feedback.

McIntyre, 19, a Heritage Woods secondary grad now on scholarship in her second year of a BFA degree at Montclair State University, New Jersey, said she feels blessed to have been on the stage before Webber.

"It was really surreal just to be there," she said. "I was trying not to let my nerves get to me but it's hard when it's Andrew Lloyd Webber.... Having done some training in [university] this year and hearing what he said was really cool because he's not just a teacher, he's making musical theatre."

Gillis was equally in awe. She was asked to sing On My Own from Les Misérables for Webber.

"He is such an inspiration in the musical theatre industry and to have the honour of performing in front of him was such a powerful and magical experience, I will never ever forget it and it will always be cherished in my heart," she said.

As for her school work, which officially started last week, Gillis, 16, a Grade 11 student at Coquitlam's Gleneagle secondary, said her teachers like drama coach Ashley Freeborn have been accommodating and supportive.

And though McIntyre and Gills can't reveal what has happened since the Dorothy Farm (the Top 20 are narrowed to the Top 10 for the live shows running this fall), both said the experience has been life changing.

McIntyre said the environment was very nurturing. "It's rare to be around so many people who are so passionate about musical theatre," she said. "It was really cool to see the paths a lot of the girls are taking and what's influencing them."

Added Gillis, "I know in my heart that the stage is where I belong and getting there is only in a matter of time. I'll get there someday - whether it's in this experience or not, I know I'll get there."

The two-hour premiere of Over The Rainbow, which includes the Dorothy Farm, kicks off Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBC-TV. The Top 10 will also be revealed by host by Daryn Jones and viewers can see them perform live for the first time. The competition will culminate in a showdown between the final three, with Webber and viewers choosing the winner.

The Top 20 Dorothys are:

Christie Stewart, Vernon

Jennifer Gillis, Coquitlam

Fiona McIntyre, Port Moody

Colleen Furlan, Winnipeg

Malindi Ayienga, Etobicoke

Michelle Bouey, Charlottetown

AJ Bridel, Kitchener

Alessandra Cannito, Toronto

Rebecca Codas, Toronto

Sarah Forestieri, Nobleton

Julia Gartha, Unionville

Cassandra Hodgins, London

Stephanie La Rochelle, Ottawa

Lia Luz, Scarborough

Jessie Munro, Toronto

Tevra Plamondon, Red Deer

Emily Robertson, Milford Station

Michelle Thibodeau, Moncton

Kelsey Verzotti, Calgary

Danielle Wade, La Salle