Tuesday, February 25, 2003


Castle High grad is a
Broadway veteran at 23,
and now has a TV role

By Tim Ryan

Kimee Balmilero never questioned her dreams, but never believed a girl from Kaneohe would actually live them. The 1997 Castle High School graduate still thinks she'll wake up one day and her three years of performing with the "Miss Saigon" national tour, a Broadway stint on "Mamma Mia!" and now a 45-episode television series on the Learning Channel that started airing yesterday will disappear.


Live-action, musical-variety series for preschool children co-starring Kimee Balmilero
Where: The Learning Channel
When: 7:30 a.m. weekdays

"What has happened is seriously unbelievable," said Balmilero, 23, in a telephone interview from her New York City home. "Every little girl grows up wanting to be an actor. I would dance and sing all the time, but I never thought of actually having a career."

Just before Balmilero graduated from Castle, she auditioned in Honolulu for the "Miss Saigon" touring company and was signed up immediately. The day after graduation at age 17, she and her dad traveled to San Antonio, where she joined the show.

"It was kind of a blessing because I didn't know what I was going to do after high school," she said.

At the end of the "Miss Saigon" tour, Balmilero moved to San Francisco to take acting classes at the American Conservatory Theatre. Then she moved to New York and landed an ensemble role in the original Broadway cast of "Mamma Mia!"

"Hi-5" is part of The Learning Channel's Ready Set Learn! programming block. Cast members, from top left are Curtis Cregan, Karla Cheatham-Mosley, Kimee Balmilero, Jenniger Peterson-Hind and Shaun Taylor- Corbett.

After performing in that show for almost a year, she was hired as a one of the five-member ensemble for the "Hi-5" children's show filmed in Sydney since last September. Shooting ended last week.

No sooner had she returned to New York when her agent called to say the "Mamma Mia!" production wanted her back. She returns to the stage on Saturday, just as her TV appearances are hitting TLC.

"Somebody pinch me," she said. "No, I don't want to wake up."

"HI-5" IS A live-action, musical-variety series for the preschool set designed for media literate children. The U.S. version is part of TLC's new "READY SET LEARN!" commercial- and sponsor-free weekday programming block.

Based on the hit Australian series, the American version is hosted by Balmilero, Karla Cheatham-Mosley, Curtis Cregan, Jennifer Peterson-Hind and Shaun Taylor-Corbett. Along with their puppet friends Jup Jup and Chatterbox, the cast offers songs, stories and skits about logic and mathematics, visual and spatial awareness, and linguistic and aural skills.

Each episode features regular segments: Shaun's "Shapes and Space," Karla's "Body Move" and Curtis' "Making Music." Jen and her puppet friend, Chats -- short for Chatterbox -- explore language and sounds with "Word Play."

Balmilero solves "Puzzles and Patterns" with Jup Jup -- a mischievous puppet whose antics she never sees but the audience does. Jup Jup secretly tries to throw Balmilero off base and encourages young viewers to shout out advice as she unravels clues to the day's puzzle.

"It's like a dream job because it's both inspirational for kids and it's fun," said Balmilero, another of Ron Bright's -- Castle High School's legendary former artistic director -- protégés. He recruited Balmilero when she was in the fifth grade for Castle's Learning Center Program.

"Kimee was a very bright student and, with all her hard work, became quite adept at dancing and singing," he said.

Balmilero had never done television work, so for "Hi-5" she had to learn "not to perform big in my actions like I do on stage."

"The television camera is more personal, and in this show you're trying to connect with a child," she said. "You try to keep the same energy level but not be so huge like you would in a big Broadway house."

THE GIRL FROM Kaneohe sounds anything but unsure of herself now. But that wasn't the case when she left home to do "Miss Saigon."

"I was scared to death," she said. "One of my old bios when I was a student with Mr. Bright said I just wanted to see 'Miss Saigon,' and here I was in the show.

"Right away, I wanted to go home. My dad said we could return to Hawaii right then if I wanted to."

She stuck it out, accomplishing her dream but, at such an early age, found it "scary."

"You think to yourself, Now what do I do?" said Balmilero, who has no immediate plans to move back to Hawaii. That doesn't mean she doesn't miss home.

"I never realized how beautiful Hawaii is until I left," she said.

Dad keeps his daughter supplied with Hawaii food sent frozen through express mail.

"I've gotten so many people hooked on Portuguese sausage, but not too many try the Spam musubi," she said.

Kimee Balmilero, left, toured with "Miss Saigon" and then landed a role in the original Broadway cast of "Mamma Mia" before landing a spot on The Learning Channel's Hi-5.

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