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From Ireland, Germany to center stage

From left: Emily Bradley, Alan Dean, Ailbhe Casey, Kevin O’Dwyer, Sarah-Kate Fanning, and Alice Stubbs at a “Fame’’ rehearsal in Natick. From left: Emily Bradley, Alan Dean, Ailbhe Casey, Kevin O’Dwyer, Sarah-Kate Fanning, and Alice Stubbs at a “Fame’’ rehearsal in Natick. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Rich Fahey
Globe Correspondent / July 26, 2011

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Emily Bradley, 16, of County Dublin, Ireland, hopes you won’t be able to detect an Irish brogue when she belts out a number in the Walnut Hill School for the Arts’ upcoming productions of the musicals “Bye Bye Birdie’’ and “Fame.’’

Christina Kiefer, 17, of Ottweiler, Germany, believes you won’t know English is not her first language when she sings in the Boston Children’s Theatre’s production of “Spring Awakening.’’

Both the venerable Boston Children’s Theatre, in its 60th season, and the Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick have reached across the pond to find young talent for their upcoming productions.

Seven German students have been cast in the Boston Children’s Theatre’s production of the Tony Award-winning musical “Spring Awakening,’’ and another three will be part of “Little Women,’’ a musical adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s iconic book set in Concord. The shows will be performed in rotation Aug. 4-7 at the Governor’s Academy in Byfield. The students in the two musicals are ages 14-19; five other German students ages 10-14 were part of an earlier production of “Footloose.’’

Walnut Hill has welcomed 11 Irish teens ages 16-18 to its five-week summer program, and they will be part of the school’s productions of “Bye Bye Birdie’’ and “Fame’’ on various dates July 28-30.

Both Boston Children’s Theatre and Walnut Hill officials say the decision to invite the students to train and perform here gives them opportunities they wouldn’t have in their countries.

The challenge for the European students is to blend in and become part of the company. The singing part, they say, is much easier than the spoken one.

“You can listen to a CD or someone else singing, and it makes it easier to mimic it without an accent,’’ said Kiefer. “It’s much more difficult to lose your accent when it comes to dialogue.’’

“You’re more in control of your vowels when you sing,’’ said Bradley.

Alice Stubbs, 17, of County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, agreed when it came to the challenge of dialogue. “We have a different dialect and accent in Northern Ireland, and it’s hard for even some of the other Irish kids to understand.’’

The German students say the dancing has been the most difficult part of their training by far, because the pace of the dancing is much quicker than they are used to.

“I have studied hip-hop, but this is a completely different style,’’ said Ines Scholtes, 14, of Merzig, Germany.

Toby Schine, the BCT’s executive producer and director of “Spring Awakening,’’ acknowledges that it is edgier than the theater’s usual fare; he is giving his production a PG-13 rating. But he says the show has been the most-requested play by students for three straight years, and the decision to stage it helped bridge the gap between two cultures.

Set in late 19th-century Germany, the musical based on the Frank Wedekind play - which was once banned in Germany - follows a group of teens on their tumultuous journey from adolescence to adulthood.

“Back home, we tend to do more serious, boring pieces,’’ said Philipp Schwindling, 19, of Wemmetsweiler, Germany, spending his second summer with the BCT. “Opera is much more popular than musical theater.’’

Burgess Clark, the BCT’s executive artistic director, who is directing “Little Women,’’ is taking German students to see Orchard House, the Alcott family home in Concord. He says the German and American students have quickly bonded into a cohesive group.

“They share a passion for theater,’’ he said. “We’ve had students from Germany in past years who come back and see us; one is now an intern with us. It’s created lasting relationships.’’

The German students’ visits are being made possible through the BCT’s ongoing relationship with the Patton Foundation, which has a German component; students are staying with area families. Schine said 90 students were auditioned in Germany for 15 slots, and personality and English language abilities were as important as skill sets.

Walnut Hill theater instructors Mike Bucco and Kirsten McKinney journeyed to Dublin this past spring to renew the school’s five-year-old ties with Dublin’s Independent Theater Workshop. McKinney taught workshops in Dublin and Enniskillen, in Northern Ireland.

The 11 students selected for the program are spending five weeks in the school’s dorms, with classes in dance, voice, and acting from about 9 a.m. to noon each morning and long rehearsals after lunch, lasting well into the evening.

“It’s a hard schedule,’’ said Alan Dean, 17, of Enniskillen. “Personally, I like that. I like to be pushed.’’

The Irish students say they are hanging onto the words of every instructor and soaking in all they can.

“I’ve learned more in five weeks [about musical theater] than I did my entire life before this,’’ said Sarah-Kate Fanning, 16, of Dublin.

The economy and lack of opportunities in their home country sends most Irish students who want to pursue musical theater to London.

“We don’t have a lot of theater going on in Ireland, and it limits our possibilities,’’ said Ailbhe Casey, 18, of Dublin. “The government has cut its support for theater, and it seems more comfortable with supporting what they know works.’’

Bucco and McKinney say their trips to Ireland have a larger purpose, as well.

“We’ve heard from previous students that their experiences at Walnut Hill changed their lives,’’ said Bucco. “One student told us she believes she got into Trinity College in Dublin on the basis of her experiences here.’’

Fanning said her instructors’ never-ending pursuit of perfection will be her lasting memory of the five weeks. “Back home, ‘good enough’ might be enough. Here, even after you feel you’ve done amazing, they ask you to push it up a notch.’’

Rich Fahey can be reached at faheywrite@yahoo.com.

SPRING AWAKENING and LITTLE WOMEN

Presented by Boston Children’s Theatre.

At: Governor’s Academy, Byfield, Aug. 4, 6-7 (“Spring Awakening’’) and Aug. 5-7 (“Little Women’’). 617-424-6634, ext. 222, www.bostonchildrens theatre.org

BYE BYE BIRDIE and FAME

Presented by Walnut Hill School for the Arts

At: Walnut Hill School for the Arts, Natick, July 29-30 (“Bye Bye Birdie“) and July 28, 30 (“Fame’’). www.walnuthillarts.org