Bubble Gum Babes

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When they begin to sing "Beginning End," it becomes clear that Danielle's microphone doesn't work. But she doesn't let on. If the girls move close to the speakers, a screech of feedback slices through their songs. That doesn't faze them either. They just perform as far as possible from the speakers and smile -- a lot. The parents do their best to keep the audience involved. Emmi's mother, Carmella, claps her hands to the songs and enthusiastically sings along. Then the girls close with "Whoomp! There It Is." It's always a big crowd pleaser.

When they finish, Centi, who organized the show, announces that if anyone wants to meet the Funn Club, the girls will be signing autographs.

Michael Balakonis, who's been watching the show with his friend Shane Bailie, doesn't wait for them to get to the table. "Let's go," he says to Shane before they head toward stage right. Both 14-year-olds are dressed in black T-shirts and pants. Michael has on red-and-black Cat in the Hat-like socks and pants that stop at his calves. Neither is impressed with the Funn Club's music. "Too bubble gumish," Michael says.

It's the cute they want to meet. "Maybe if they came out with their own music," Shane suggests.

When introduced to Brittany, who's standing at the side of the stage talking to some friends, Shane charmingly but clumsily compliments her dancing. "I like the..." he says, moving his arm up and down in a motion reminiscent of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, "that you did."

She smiles, "Thanks."

After a brief conversation, Brittany excuses herself to join the others at a table to sign autographs.

A group of about eight teenage boys lingers around the Funn Club, talking to them. Danielle looks dejected. Asked how she thinks the performance went, she looks up, thrusts her arm out, and makes the "thumbs down" sign.

Inside her room in her parents' large Coral Springs home, Danielle sprawls across a twin bed decorated with leopard-spotted pillows and a tiger-striped bedspread. The Funn Club represents a step toward Danielle's dreams of making it as a singer, but the 15-year-old also struggles with the sacrifices. It's a dilemma she's faced since she entered show business as a 7-year-old.

Danielle is reed-thin, with thick, straight, mahogany-brown hair and giant, soulful brown eyes. Next to her on the bed is a large, stuffed, brown hound named "Mr. Scruffy." On the floor are her slippers, light brown plush slip-ons with monkey heads decorating the feet. She loves monkeys. There's a poster of Ashton Kutcher on her wall. Her computer screensaver is a picture of the four Funn Club girls. Every half-minute or so, the computer beeps with a new message.

Singing and writing poetry are the ways Danielle transcends the turbulent emotions of adolescence, she explains before springing from the bed to retrieve a scrapbook. On the cover, amid a swirl of images, she has pasted her favorite quote. It's from Ashanti: "All I have to do is belt out a tune and I've forgotten about my problems."

Her father, Rich, decided to teach Danielle to sing when she was 5 years old. At 6, he took her to a friend's oldies bar, where she belted out "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" with a cluster of middle-aged doo-wop singers backing her up.

When Danielle was in second grade, her parents spotted an ad for an open audition for the role of Cosette in the Broadway musical Les Miserables. Danielle looked just like Cosette, says her mother, Colleen: "She just had the pitiful look. She even had dark circles under her eyes, from allergies."

She got the part, even though she had minimal voice training and only local acting experience. She appeared on Broadway with the show and then went on a national tour. She was away from home for 13 months. "At that age, I didn't understand what it all meant," she says. "I just went up there and did it."

Returning to life in Coral Springs at the end of third grade proved awkward, though. At first, the other children in her class treated her like a star, she says. Then some turned mean. She now realizes they may have been jealous. "When I was young," she says, "I thought all of a sudden, my friends didn't like me anymore." A favorite teacher even lashed out at her. "Sit down and shut up, Danielle," she says the teacher told her in front of the other children. "You're not on Broadway anymore."

Not quite. In fourth grade, Danielle won a four-month spot on Broadway as a child in Ragtime.

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Susan Eastman
Contact: Susan Eastman