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Local grads sing, dance with Young Americans
Broadway tunes help raise awareness about music education
Hall County natives Andrew Fields, left, and Rob Whelchel pose with Fellow Young American member Megan McAllister. The two men are spending this summer in Harbor Springs, Mich., working for the 34-year-old Young Americans theater group.

Rob Whelchel and Andrew Fields graduated from Gainesville High School and North Hall High School, respectively, in 2009.

Three months after crossing the stage with their caps and gowns, they were crossing a different stage — singing and dancing to Broadway show tunes to raise awareness about music education in schools as part of the Young Americans.

"We'll do stuff from like ‘Lion King' and ‘Hairspray,'" Whelchel said. "It's like a variety show."

Young Americans has both an outreach theater and a dinner theater. Whelchel and Fields are part of both.

"The dinner theater, we serve and we perform," Fields said. "We do numbers about the salad, numbers about the rolls and the drinks."

The two are spending this summer in Harbor Springs, Mich., working for the 34-year-old dinner theater.

Because Young Americans is a nonprofit, performers get paid for serving, but not for singing and dancing.

It's slightly different from their outreach program, for which Fields and Whelchel toured until they tried out for the dinner theater.

Young Americans tours both across the U.S. and Europe and performs at schools, prisons and youth detention centers. The group holds a three-day workshop at each location, teaching choreography and music.

Fields and Whelchel found out about Young Americans when it came to the Gainesville area several years ago. Part of the workshop they attended held auditions for the traveling troupe, and Whelchel said they figured, "why not?".

The experiences they've had in the past two years have changed their lives.

"Last summer, Rob and I went to a youth prison in Germany. There were these huge guys and I was sort of intimidated," Fields said. "But they had so much want to learn. We'd been to schools and performed for kids who will probably grow up to be successful businessmen. But this was something different. It was so emotional."

Having been involved in drama at their respective high schools, the men — who grew up in the same neighborhood and attended Mount Vernon Elementary School — had no doubt they were cut out for this type of work.

Their drama teachers agree.

"(Whelchel) was involved in all musicals during his tenure at GHS. He was a leader that led with a positive approach to his peers, had strong work ethic, came from a very supportive family and is a unique individual who loves life and lives it moment to moment to the fullest," Pam Ware, drama teacher at Gainesville High, said in an email to The Times.

Jan Ewing, drama teacher at North Hall High, said the two are learning how to be true leaders.

"They're going to learn to present themselves very well in any situation," Ewing said. "(Fields) is so supportive of his friends and peers. He's just great."

Ewing said though Whelchel and Fields are suited to the theater aspect of Young Americans, the group does more than just teach dancing and singing lessons.

"They use music and theater to relay a message of respect and diversity and peace and love," she said. "It's kind of like they're creating good humanitarians, not just good performers."

No matter how much they enjoy teaching and spending time in the spotlights, it's hard being so far from their families for so long.

"I was in Japan in the spring when the earthquake happened," Whelchel said. "We were there for a week and we didn't have much contact with our families."

When not touring or performing, Young Americans members take classes at the Young Americans College of Performing Arts, a conservatory-style program affiliated with North Central Michigan College.

The men aren't sure college is in their future, however. They both plan to continue to work with Young Americans for at least another year, and then see where the wind — or the stage — takes them.

There's a "fraternity" of Young Americans alumni to help new members network the entertainment business.

"We've been living out of a suitcase for a year," Whelchel said. "You go through such different situations and you build relationships that will last forever. It makes you learn a lot more about yourself than you ever thought."