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Philly auditions for the Apollo bring on the best and the peculiar

 Philadelphian Tasha Underwood auditions for

Philadelphian Tasha Underwood auditions for "Amateur Night at the Apollo." She was first in line out of about 300 hopefuls. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The famous Apollo Theater in Harlem was in town on Saturday to scope out Philadelphia talent for its weekly stage show, “Amateur Night at the Apollo.”

About 300 people came, some lining up outside all night beforehand, to get their big break. 

“We will not tell you today whether we want you or not,” Producer Marion Caffey told a roomful of hopefuls. He needs to fill up a full show of talent every week, so the call might not come this week, or next week, or even this year. “If we want you, trust me, we will call you because that’s our business. We do want you.”

The first person in line, the one issued a piece of paper with the number “1” on it, was Tasha Underwood of West Philadelphia. The singer with a powerful voice was trained on gospel and R&B. She has been performing most of her life, first in a Little Miss America pageant.

“I’m going to be singing one of the songs from ‘Dreamgirls,’ ‘I Am Changing,'” Underwood, 45, said. “Because I need their help. That’s one of my finale songs.”

The open audition attracted a range of talents, including rappers, dancers, instrumentalists, songwriters, comedians, spoken-word poets and a ventriloquist speaking through a leather-jacketed lion hand puppet.

A good amateur show, Caffey said, should have a spectrum of talent.

“Not necessarily the best—we look for something entertaining. There are bad people that entertain, and good people that entertain,” Caffey said. “Of course, we are always looking for our next star. You know that person in the first four notes. The room changes. Other than that, we are looking for talented people. They can be really entertaining and good, but not necessarily a star.”

Caffey gave some special attention to ‘The One,’ an original song sung in a falsetto by its author, Justin P. Graham, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. He also flagged a comedian who improvised a dead-on Denzel Washington and a singer with the chops of Eryka Badu.

“You got that copywrited?” Caffey asked Graham, which he had. “Someone is going to steal that song.”

This is the 79th season of “Amateur Night at the Apollo.” Caffey, the producer since 2009, said he believes the Apollo has never before come to Philadelphia to mine for talent. “I always hate to say ‘never’ because it’s been going on since 1934. In recent years, first time.”

“My name is Bran Stratton, I’m contestant number 9, and I’ll be singing ‘I’m Still Holding On,'” announced the gospel singer from Erial, N.J. Stratton has been singing since he was 6 years old. Now 59, this could be his big break.

“I am still holding on,” Stratton said. “I’ve been doing it for a long time. You never give up, never stop, you keep on going on. You never fail until you quit.”

Of the approximately 300 people who auditioned Saturday, maybe 5 percent to 10 percent will get called back. The rest were urged to keep plying their talent at other auditions.

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