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When you're as buff as a rugby player, wearing ballet tights takes a bit of getting used to.

"You can run faster and move around easier," says 21-year-old actor Vane Sopoaga, twiddling a dreadlock around his finger. "But they're not cool, eh?"

Sopoaga is one of the budding stars of Karaoke High, TV2's new soap that fills the breach while Shortland Street goes on summer break. He's not the only cast member who has been put in a compromising position during the eight-week shoot.

On location today at St Patrick's College in Wellington, Julia Walshaw and Paddy Fogarty are preparing for their sixth schoolyard kiss of the day as a well-rehearsed game of hand-slapping goes on in the background.

Their characters are students at the performing arts academy at the fictional Kingston High. Those who didn't make the cut gave Karaoke High its nickname.

Those having withdrawal for the Street's relationship dramas will have no need to pine. Karaoke's rich kids, rappers and thieves are as focused on their relationships as their promising careers. "I think of it as a New Zealand version of Fame," says Miriama Smith, who plays a dance teacher at the school.

Most of the show is filmed at TVNZ's Avalon studio, where an impressive school has been modelled on St Pat's, complete with a spacious dance studio and a garish orange cafe called Mockasin.

Writers Sarah Mayberry and Kirsty McKenzie approached TVNZ with the idea three years ago. Keen to emulate the success of Dancing With the Stars and the tween Disney movie High School Musical - and with help from a $385,000 injection from NZ On Air - the broadcaster developed it into a three-week soap. Although most of the young cast are new to TV, the writers have worked on Shortland Street, Home & Away and Neighbours.

Dancing With the Stars' producer Debra Kelleher-Smith is on board, and Candy Lane is the choreographer.

It is hoped the show has the right combination of music, dance and drama to bring viewers indoors over summer, even if it's just for half an hour a night. It's also expected to appeal to a broader audience than Shortland Street, which rates highly with teens.

"The interest in arty activities has become a bit cooler," says Kelleher-Smith. "We have a very strong arts community in New Zealand so we can tap into the performing arts schools, the ballet schools, the music and amateur theatre - it's always been of very high calibre in this country."

The casting priority was to find actors with the skills to match the characters. "We also wanted to find some fresh talent. We had a pot-pourri to choose from and we did make some very good calls."

One of them was the inexperienced but athletic Sopoaga, who came to the audition with his mate, Ian Finau. Both auditioned for the role of Hone but Sopoaga got the part; Finau won a role as Hone's best mate Matu.

"I just really wanted to be an extra," says Sopoaga. "I'd never done acting or anything before so I didn't really expect much from it. I had to make up a dance and stuff. I dunno how I got it, eh?"

Then there are TV newcomers Fogarty and Michael Whalley plus Walshaw, Naomi Watts' body double in King Kong, Sharnika Robson, who appeared on TV3's So You Think You Can Dance? and Alina Transom, who last starred in local drama The Market.

"Because it's set in a high school, you have to have a vast cast," says Kelleher-Smith. "Otherwise it becomes too insular.

"There's a variety of ages so you get that family point of view and it's not just for the 17-year-olds."

The original script was pitched at a tween audience but had its edges sharpened so older viewers would tune in.

Ex-Shortland Street stars Phil Brown and Sally Stockwell, and Miriama Smith (Mercy Peak, Last Man Standing) round out some of the more experienced cast.

Just before the school term starts, teachers Angela (Smith) and David (Brown) sleep together - more Grey's Anatomy than High School Musical.

Unlike the Disney tween hit that boasted a cast of all-American sweetie-pies with bowl-cut hairdos and cheesy smiles, the Karaoke kids bust into rap and breakdance routines (set to all-original music), drink alcohol and spend the night with their other halves.

Throughout the three weeks, they will confront all the perils of teenhood: self esteem, peer pressure, money, romance, cultural identity (when Samoan dad marries palagi mum), lawlessness, career pressure and sex, all dealt with in a family-friendly manner, of course. "It's more cutting edge and pushes more realistic themes than something like High School Musical," says Kelleher-Smith.

"But it's not cheesy. Karaoke High's got more real things going on."

And although it has a three-week run, she's hopeful it will be extended. "It does have closure at the end but it also has the potential for new beginnings. It has legs."

* Karaoke High, TV2, 7pm from Monday. See the first episode now at www.tvnz.co.nz. Enter keywords Karaoke High.

Who's who at Karaoke High?
LARA (Sharnika Robson) The self-doubter. Dealing with her new step-family and a troubled romance. A ballerina. Best friends with Charlie.

"You'll see her go downhill," says Robson. "She gets a bit out of control."

HONE (Vanepale Sopoaga) The rebel. Joins the dance academy to prove to ex-girlfriend Miri he is better than her. Tom's best mate. Likes hip-hop. Lacks discipline.

"He's happy-go-lucky," says Sopoaga. "And flirtatious and cheeky."

MIRI (Alina Transom) The home girl. Helps her disabled mother look after her two younger sisters and dreams of being a famous rapper. Works at Mockasin cafe. Always busy.

"She's always annoyed at Hone because he doesn't have to try," says Transom. "She tries so hard and just gets in."

CHARLIE (Julia Walshaw) The runaway. Her mother has just died. Escaped life in foster care to follow her dream of becoming a ballerina. Finds love with Callum. She's Lara's best friend.

"She'll do whatever it takes," says Walshaw. "She's tough but she's desperate."

CALLUM (Paddy Fogarty) The rich kid. Has a bad relationship with his parents. In love with Charlie. A quiet musical prodigy who writes his own songs.

"You can't extract his personality from the surface," says Fogarty. "There's a lot going on under the surface."

ANGELA (Miriama Smith) The dance teacher. Came home after several years at London's Royal Ballet. Expects the best. Is attracted to David.

"She learned the hard way that she was considered quite an average dancer in London," says Smith. "She's a realist. She calls a spade a spade."

DAVID (Phil Brown) The music teacher. Believes in talent, not politics. Becomes Angela's ally and Callum's father figure. Fights for his students.

"His actions speak louder than words," says Brown. "Sometimes he's dry and sarcastic but his intentions are good."