Dallas — This is a record year for the Dallas Summer Musicals High School Musical Theater Awards, with 65 participating schools (41 of them garnering nominations) and 71 productions. Judges were busy throughout the school year, and a massive number of adolescents clad in their best formal attire packed the Music Hall at Fair Park on April 29 for the fourth annual ceremony. Chaired by Nancy Natinsky and emceed by WFAA’s Ron Corning, the evening featured a live orchestra conducted by David Dabbon with musical numbers staged by Michael B. Tapley.
The Tony awards-inspired shindig celebrated the best youth musical theater talent in the DFW area and beyond. This year’s awards brought in schools as far away as Abilene and Waco, and more private schools are throwing their hats in the ring, as well. Also, for the first time, schools could enter both the DSM awards and Fort Worth’s Betty Buckley Awards, presented by Casa Mañana, but only the best leading actor/actress winners from DSM advance to the National High School Musical Theater Awards, also known as the Jimmy Awards. (Irving’s Lyric Stage has also recently announced nominations for its Jones & Schmidt Awards.)
A youthful spirit permeated the venue, but these lads and ladies knew how to be professional. Even guest judge and Glee choreographer/co-producer Zach Woodlee was impressed by it, as he adjudicated the nominees for the top solo awards. The Mesquite native and Poteet High School alum remarked, “I was surprised that everyone was able to pull up to their game. They walked in like they had been doing this for years.”
And the talent kept getting better. Tracy Jordan, manager for the awards program and ceremony, glowed with excitement as he talked about the students. “In four years, this is by far the strongest crop of talent, not just in the soloists but in the schools. One of the things we wanted to accomplish was to raise the standard, and the competition is really bringing out the best.”
That excellence was on display for a packed house. Eight nominees for Best Musical sang and danced their hearts out throughout the evening, and those up for Best Leading Actor/Actress performed a medley in their respective categories. A multitude of microphone tech issues prevented us from fully hearing many of the vocals, but that professionalism kicked in and the problems didn’t seem to faze any of the performers.
Two schools up for the top award stood out. Mansfield invited us to dinner with “Be Our Guest” from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and Zach Montou shocked the socks off of the audience as Lumiere. Dancers dressed as every manner of utensil, clean choreography, and impressive kicks by Montou made this the most enchanting moment of the night. It’s no surprise that he took home Best Supporting Actor award.
J. J. Pearce High School schooled us in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying with the all-male song-and-dance number “Brotherhood of Man.” The large number of gentlemen dancing and rolling on the ground in business suits, complete with jazz hands, proved to be quite astonishing. Even more so is the fact that a good chunk of them were from Pearce’s football team. The production’s lead actors were quick to praise their choreographer Kim Buckley and the inclusiveness of the theater program in casting all types of people from the high school’s community.
Pearce took home the coveted Best Musical award, but Mansfield was no slouch, winning the most of the evening. In addition to Montou’s win, they snagged Best Student Orchestra, Best Choreography and Best Supporting Actress for Anna Pritchett’s performance as Mrs. Potts.
The medleys are typically the highlight of the evening, and this year is no exception. Musical director Dabbon intricately knitted together solos for the young men and women in a way that included more ensemble singing and dancing rather than skipping from one to the next. The move lent a greater cohesion as each singer showcases his or her vocals, while displaying teamwork among the performers. Notable among the gentlemen were Logan Reid as Javert (Les Miserables, McKinney Boyd), a frightening Drew Mitchell as Sweeney Todd (Sweeney Todd, Rockwall), Drew Brown as a vulnerable Tarzan (Disney’s Tarzan, Carroll) and Chris Clark as Jesus (Jesus Christ Superstar, Plano West).
Clark picked up this one, and the Texas State-bound senior had some interesting insights into how he embraced his role as the most famous man who ever lived. “I had people from churches asking me how I balanced being the Son of God and man, and I said, ‘I didn’t.’ I think I created by own Jesus based on the Jesus I already knew. The way I thought about it was God is my father, but I’m not the Son of God.”
The ladies’ medley ranged from a sparky Grace Tucker as Peter Pan (Peter Pan, Southwest Christian) to an intimidating Monica Lockwood belting it out as Carmen (Curtains, Colleyville Heritage) to the sweet Shelby Priddy as Belle (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Mansfield). But, it was Guyer High School, a frequent HSMTA winner, that went all in with their offering of Pippin, who received a win with Katelyn Cave for her role as Leading Player. She detailed the hours of rehearsal and dance workshops with Fosse veteran Diane Laurenson (who included some original Broadway choreography), and the circus and silks training it took to pull off the ambitious show.
“It’s intense,” she said of the experience with wonder in her eyes. “It takes a lot of muscle, a lot of willpower, and lots of practice and dedication, when you’re working as hard as you can to pull off something that seems impossible.”
One thing I noticed the entire evening is that the performers couldn’t stop praising those around them. Amidst a business driven by self-promotion, these young men and women turned their gaze outward and gush on and on about their mentors, the directors, choreographers, but most of all, each other. They almost seemed to shy away from self-adoration. In fact, both leading winners cited the medley experience with others as their most memorable moment of the awards.
For Cave, it was “getting as close as I was with the eight other girls. We worked hard together, warmed up together; we were each other’s biggest fans throughout the whole thing. Each one of us carried something different. They’re beautiful people, and I have life friends now.”
Clark was equally blown away by the experience. “All those guys are incredible,” he says. “I would hate to be the judges.”
Pearce’s representatives jumped at the chance to laud those in authority, especially mentioning set designer Mark Wingate and tech director Kelly Cox. Sydney Kane (nominated for “Best Leading Actress” and headed to Pace University next year) says of head director Heather Biddle, “She taught me how to be tough, which I’ll definitely need in New York. She also taught the value of really appreciating your cast and crew and appreciating everything your show has to offer.”
As we send best wishes to these young stars for a bright future, let’s hope that they keep the optimism, joy, and compassion towards one another. It’ll make the world a better place.
Full list of winners:
Best Featured Performer – Jack Durham as Hot Blades Harry, JJ Pearce HS, Urinetown
Best Choreography – Mansfield HS, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
Best Lighting Design – Plano West Senior HS, Jesus Christ Superstar
Best Scenic Design – Waco HS, Disney’s Tarzan
Best Orchestra – Mansfield HS, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
Best Musical Direction – Wylie East HS, Seussical
Best Supporting Actor – Zach Montou as Lumiere, Mansfield HS, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
Best Supporting Actress – Anna Pritchett as Mrs. Potts, Mansfield HS, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
Best Direction – Plano West Senior HS, Jesus Christ Superstar
Best Ensemble – Abilene HS, Urinetown
Best Crew and Technical Execution – Southwest Christian School, Peter Pan
Best Costume Design – Waco HS, Disney’s Tarzan
Best Leading Actor – Chris Clark as Jesus, Plano West Senior HS, Jesus Christ Superstar
Best Leading Actress – Katelyn Cave as Leading Player, Guyer HS, Pippin
Best Musical – JJ Pearce HS, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying