Everything is "Beautiful" for a 13-year-old cancer survivor

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NEW YORK >> As she prepares to sing the iconic Carole King song "Beautiful" onstage, Hannah Pienkowski has managed to find the perfect coach. Not the actual songwriter, but maybe the next best thing.

Chilina Kennedy, who plays King on Broadway in "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical," has helped 13-year-old Hannah, a brain cancer survivor, shape the song and her performance for the upcoming annual Garden of Dreams talent show.

Hannah, of Monticello, N.Y., who was diagnosed with a pineoblastoma brain tumor in April 2014, is among more than two dozen children taking part in the show hosted by Madison Square Garden.

Hannah picked a beloved song with an optimistic tilt. The lyrics go: "You've got to get up every morning with a smile on your face/ And show the world all the love in your heart."

"I like the song. It just reminds me of my life. Mostly people would get depressed once they've had cancer but I've tried to look past that, to be happy every day," said Hannah.

The Garden of Dreams talent show gives kids who have faced illness or tragedy an opportunity to perform in front of family and friends at the 6,000-seat Radio City Music Hall. This year's show will be held Monday and admission is free.

The slate of performers has had to overcome amputation, homelessness, sickle cell disease, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, nephroblastoma, sexual assault, chest and spine deformities, and cerebral palsy.

They will do everything from rap original songs, dance to a Fetty Wap tune, read an original spoken word poem, belt out "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" and play guitar to a Pantera tune.

In addition to Kennedy, mentors include Renee Elise Goldsberry of "Hamilton" and Olympic gold medalist Nastia Liukin, who helped the gymnastic routine of an 11-year-old battling sickle cell disease. Kennedy said volunteering was an honor.

"It's funny to say I could change somebody's life because I find these things change my life," Kennedy said. "So many people in the world don't get a chance to fulfill their dreams — adults and children — so I think any organization that helps, especially kids, to have an opportunity like this is something that I support fully."

Over the course of an hour in a midtown rehearsal room last month, Kennedy coached the teen to feel the lyrics and act them out, slowly relaxing her performance and encouraging her to belt it out.

Kennedy asked Hannah to say the lyrics out loud as if it was dialogue. She asked her to plant her feet as she delivered the opening lines. "'A smile on your face'?" she asked. "Do what? 'Show the world!' What would that look like?"

After breaking down the verses, Hannah was encouraged to imagine singing it to one person and start from the top. "Go for it! Live it!" Kennedy told her. "There are no mistakes."

Next Kennedy encouraged Hannah to loosen her body and use her hands and arms to deliver the song's message. They devised some choreography and then they huddled on the last phrase. "Whatever you want to do," said the coach.

"Remember, when you're singing about sadness, it doesn't mean you have to feel sad about it. When you sing about sadness, if it comes from love and joy, it's even more moving and inspiring."

"Thank you!" said the teen.

"Thank you!" said the mentor.


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