When the house lights dim, Lena Amato knows it’s almost her time to shine.
And, occasional butterflies notwithstanding, the 16-year-old theater standout is completely at home on the stage and in the spotlight.
Singing and dancing since she was a small child, Amato has spent years honing her craft and is poised to take her next big step in the Prince Music Theater’s summer institute performance of West Side Story.
The West Side experience has been the latest in a young career that has been highlighted by many challenging and awarding endeavors.
The child of two theater talents, the South Philly resident gained exposure early on in grade school while participating in competitions held by the Dance Educators of America.
Then, encouraged by her parents, Amato joined St. John Neumann High’s theater group at age 9 and appeared in the annual plays. The group became an extension of her family — and with some real family worked in.
"My mom is the lead choreographer for the Neumann players," Amato explains, "and my parents actually met while doing the plays in high school."
The family ties give the Neumann plays added meaning for the teen, who — even as she enters her junior year at St. Maria Goretti High — likely won’t be starring in the high-school productions.
Seeking more professional experience, Amato auditioned a year ago for a spot in a summer program run by the Tracy Hall Dance Company, at Second and Fitzwater streets. The company was so impressed with her skills, she was asked to join its main group of 13- to 18-year-old performers.
"It’s a small group — there’s only two girls and two guys — but the smaller size allows our instructors to really focus in on our strengths and weaknesses," Amato says.
The modern dance company averages three or four gigs a month, with some of its most recent performances taking place at Penn’s Landing, City Hall and the Philadelphia International Airport.
"It’s a lot of fun," says the teen. "We have different choreographed numbers for different events, and our styles can range from jazz to club to R&B.;"
Amato also enjoys taking time to watch some of her rode models do what she loves best. She has made several pilgrimages to New York to take in some Broadway shows, and recently saw Bernadette Peters — one of her "personal favorites" — in a production of Gypsy.
Seeing Peters thrive only strengthened an already-remarkable sense of focus and dedication for someone who has yet to even attend her junior prom.
"My career is my main priority," says Amato. "I intend on going to a performing-arts college after high school. And in 10 years, I hope to see myself on Broadway, where people will know my name."
If she is indeed able to one day join her idols on Broadway, Lena won’t be the first Amato to have some professional success. She remembers her father doing commercials for Mr. Goodbuy’s when she was a child, and can even recall watching a rather morbid clip of him on the syndicated crime show Unsolved Mysteries.
"My dad was in one of those corny reenactment scenes where they show you how something unfolded," she describes, laughing. "He wound up getting shot in the scene, but I remember watching it over and over again."
Her parents’ dedication to her career has helped Amato land her latest enriching opportunity in the Prince’s production of West Side Story. While searching online for stage opportunities, her mom found out about the theater’s first-ever summer institute.
Amato went to an audition in late June and won a full $1,200 scholarship to attend the intensive four-week program. The experience has been challenging and, at times, life-altering, just as Prince managing director Joe Farina had promised.
"It’s hard work — we come in, ready to go, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day," Amato says.
Coming in as the only person from South Philly was difficult at first for the teen, but she soon grew to embrace the diversity of her fellow performers.
"Everyone here is from a different background, with different interests, but we’ve really come together and become great friends," she says.
"[This experience] has helped me to grow for the future," Amato adds, "because I now realize that if I’m serious about performing, it’s only going to get harder as I go on."
Amato had hoped from the start to win the role of Anita in West Side Story, and once again her determination paid off.
West Side Story runs tomorrow and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with the finale Sunday at 2 p.m., at Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St. Advance-sale tickets are $10 and are available by calling UpStages at 215-569-9700. Tickets will be sold at the door for $12.