Do you know a child age 17 or younger with a precocious talent in academics, athletics or the arts? The Times Free Press is searching for children to feature in "Talent Show," which appears in the Life section on Tuesdays. To nominate a child as a possible subject of a future feature article, e-mail staff writer Casey Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 423-757-6205.
Name: Brittni Rhodes.
School: Center for Creative Arts.
Siblings: Sister, Samantha, 13; stepsister, Nicole, 26.
Favorite role: Penny Pingleton in "Hairspray."
Dream roles: Eponine in "Les Miserables" or Bonnie in "Bonnie and Clyde the Musical."
Musical theater idols: Sutton Foster, Stephanie J. Block and Laura Osnes.
As she walked onto the Chattanooga Theatre Centre's MainStage for the opening night of "Hairspray," Brittni Rhodes flashed back to the moment she fell in love with musical theater.
At age 8, Brittni was sitting in the same theater for her first musical, "Oklahoma," and the experience left her spellbound.
"During all the dance numbers, my mouth was open," she said. "I was amazed. It's almost like it clicked that this is what I wanted to do."
Before "Oklahoma," Brittni had been studying Broadway songs in her vocal lessons, but they were no different from other material she was learning. Seeing the tunes performed live with choreography was eye-opening and the start of a lifelong passion for the stage.
Now 18, she says being the one singing and dancing in the spotlight last year felt like closing a loop.
"That was where I saw my first musical," she explains. "To be cast ... in the show was very exciting."
The 2011 production of "Hairspray" went on to be named Ensemble of the Year in the Theatre Centre's Miss Annie Awards for the year. Brittni's comedic performance of Pingleton earned her the award for Best Supporting Actress.
Brittni credits her growth as a performer to her studies as a musical theater major at Center for Creative Arts, where she enrolled in eighth grade. Being surrounded by like-minded teachers and students has offered opportunities she might not have had otherwise, she says.
"Every day, you learn something new about the career you want to go into," she says. "The whole atmosphere at that school makes you want to get out there and start auditioning."
Now a senior, Brittni has been a cast member of the school's elite musical theater company, The Choo Choo Kids, since her sophomore year. The group consists primarily of juniors and seniors, and she was one of the youngest members when she joined.
CCA dance instructor and Choo Choo Kids director Lindsay Fussell said that, despite Brittni's age, selecting her wasn't difficult, given her single-minded dedication to her craft.
"She's willing to sweat for what she wants, and that's not always the case," Fussell said. "Some people want to be a star, but they don't want to have to do the work it takes to make it happen."
In February, CCA was one of four schools chosen by Disney to stage a production of a musical based on the studio's animated film "Tarzan." Brittni was selected to play Jane Porter, an Englishwoman who befriends and eventually falls in love with the apeman.
Brittni says she felt honored by the selection but also a great deal of pressure having such an important role in such a high-profile production. She spent weeks preparing by watching YouTube videos and BBC classic films to hone her mannerisms and accent to match those of a Victorian woman.
Although she doesn't feel nervous on stage, Brittni says the moments leading into her first song in the Tarzan production, "Waiting For This Moment," emphasized the significance of being one of only four teen actresses to take on the role.
"It was like, 'This is happening,'" she explains. "It was a great thing. It felt so unreal."
Having taken on two prominent roles in the last year, Brittni says she feels prepared to take on her next challenge as Doralee Rhodes in the musical "Nine to Five." The part was first portrayed in a 1980 film of the same name by country superstar Dolly Parton.
After giggling her way through a scene she describes as "too much fun" during her audition, Brittni left feeling convinced she was going to be passed over. Being selected for the role was a surprise, she says.
Now, she has yet another accent to perfect -- a Southern one -- before the production's debut in mid-February, a date that overlaps with her January audition for the musical theater program at her dream school, the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.
Preparing for both is bound to be a challenge, but that's one thing Brittni says she never shies away from.
"[Acting] just takes you on a journey," she said. "When you're focused and producing a great work by great writers, you put yourself completely into the character and the story. I've loved that since I was little."
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP