Dallas — Dallas, we’re gonna need a bigger stage.
Every year, the Dallas Summer Musicals High School Musical Theatre Awards just keeps growing, and as spacious as the Music Hall at Fair Park is, the place felt like it was bursting at the seams on April 14 with the fifth installment of the Tony awards-style shindig honoring young talent.
Sixty-seven schools participated with a grand total of 70 productions judged, 45 of which were nominated for one or more of 16 awards. If those record-breaking numbers already have your head spinning, here’s one more. The organization exceeded its fundraising goal and gave $35,000 in scholarships this year. The competition has become the largest of its kind in Texas and the second-largest in the nation.
And it’s not just Metroplex area schools joining in the fun. Institutions from other areas of Texas entered the competition and have consistently taken home awards, catching the eye of DSM-HSMTA manager Tracy Jordan, who echoed the “bigger stage” sentiment.
“About half the awards tonight went to local schools,” he said, “but regional programs from Weatherford, Abilene, Waco, and Paris are bringing their A game and giving notice to these metropolitan schools, like ‘Hey, you’d better watch out.’ To go out to the prairies of Abilene in West Texas, for example, and find the most amazing musical theater programs out there is thrilling.”
Not only have the number of participating cities and schools grown, but the talent has risen as well, in an intriguing manner. Jordan stated that the point of this program is to raise the standard for young talent, and this year proved to be the best example. Usually a handful of schools dominate the winner’s circle each year, but last week the awards were surprisingly spread out. Musical theater powerhouse J.J. Pearce High School took home three, Waxahachie High (a frequent winner) earned two, but the others went to 11 separate schools.
Emmy award-winning broadcaster and veteran judge Steve Noviello (KDFW) remarked on the students’ dedication and humility, two persistent themes throughout the 5-year run of the awards.
“I think it gets better every year,” he said, as he recounted the story of a young man who learned tap last summer in preparation for his Mary Poppins audition. “To hear these kids be that dedicated is inspiring. The other thing that really stood out at the finals for Best Actor and Actress was the camaraderie and how kind they are to each other, the judges, and volunteers.”
The evening, dubbed “Prom for Musical Theater” by some of the attendees since all students don their best formalwear, started early with a red-carpet entrance for the named nominees. An hour-and-a-half later, all 2,600 students, parents, and patrons took their seats for a long evening of entertainment and anticipation, hosted by WFAA’s Ron Corning.
The nominees for Best Featured Actor/Actress, Best Supporting Actor/Actress, and Best Lead Actor/Actress took the stage for a Jersey Boys medley, conducted by music director Mark Brymer and staged by choreographer Penny Ayn Maas, both of whom, respectively, arranged and choreographed all the medleys and group sequences.
Another obvious enhancement to the evening was the inclusion of projections for all performance numbers. Broadway Motion Design, a relatively new company providing Broadway-quality scenic projections to theaters and programs of all sizes, joined the party to enhance the visual quality of the musical segments.
Sandwiched between awards and recognitions were performances from the eight nominees for Best Musical. Colleyville Heritage delivered a charming rendition of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from My Fair Lady, with an admirable Melanie Chandler as Eliza Doolittle. Carroll Senior High stirred up “Transylvania Mania” from Young Frankenstein, with marvelous costumes and a cute performance from the ensemble.
All manner of fantastic creatures were on display for Grand Prairie Fine Arts Academy’s “Be the Hero” from Big Fish, including an impressive dancing giant on stilts and inspiring vocals from Christian Wikoff. Abilene and Cooper (from Abilene ISD) combined forces for a wonderful Seussical collaboration, which also displayed a wide range of characters, and Rowlett took us on the open seas with their selection from Pirates of Penzance.
Three others featured tap dancing of various complexities. Sam Snyder from J.J. Pearce channeled his inner Gene Kelly as he and the ensemble shuffled around the stage to “Singin’ in the Rain,” while the group from Guyer flew us across the rooftops of London with a rousing “Step in Time.”
The funniest by far, though, was Waxahachie’s “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway” from Spamalot. The hoofing knights and a Cher-esque Lady of the Lake (Kaiden Maines) brought down the house with their impeccable comedic timing and took home the coveted Best Musical award for the evening.
After the show, WHS seniors Garfield Harrison and Gabrielle Wallace gushed about the dedication of their program through tears of joy.
“I am beyond proud of my school, my cast members, and directors,” said Harrison. “With this show, you gotta have perseverance, you gotta be able to stick it out. When one person seems like they’re faltering, you gotta pick them back up. I’m so glad we overcame all the obstacles as a cast and crew.”
Another highlight of every awards show is the medleys for Best Actor and Actress, and all the performers astounded with their unique capacities.
Sammy Swim (South Garland) naturally opened the men’s medley as a smoldering Emcee from Cabaret with “Wilkommen,” displaying amazing high kicks. Next came a heartfelt Wikoff, followed by a sincere Ryland Kaiser (Colleyville Heritage) as Henry Higgins. The segment saw a nice dramatic and comedic range, from Ray Solis (Pantego Christian, The Fantasticks) delivering a slow ballad to an impressively fast-talking Drew Brown (Carroll Senior, Young Frankenstein).
Snyder performed segments of Gene Kelly’s choreography from Singin’ in the Rain, and Luke Weber (Independence) gave a rousing tune from Once Upon A Mattress. The lucky lad to take home the award, though, was the very one Noviello raved about. John Frederickson of Guyer High quickly picked up tap dance to strengthen his audition for Burt in Mary Poppins, maybe not quite realizing that his commitment would pay off with a ticket to New York for the National High School Musical Theatre Awards this summer.
The ladies had an equally varied number. A bubbly Sophia Kaiafas (Independence, Once Upon a Mattress) charmed the audience with her lively solo, while Sarah Boone (All Saints’ Episcopal, The Drowsy Chaperone) wowed with her tricks. Chandler (Colleyville Heritage, My Fair Lady) impressed with “I Could Have Danced All Night,” and Claire Methvin (Plano East, Urinetown) channeled her inner child as Little Sally.
Malana Wilson (Guyer, Mary Poppins) displayed excellent professionalism as Mary Poppins, Alexandra Doke (Grand Prairie Fine Arts, Big Fish) delivered a fervent, mature “I Don’t Need a Roof,” and Meg Grinde (Plano Senior, Funny Girl) brightened up the stage as Fanny Brice. Emily Hatch’s (Weatherford, Seussical) offering as Gertrude McFuzz displayed the widest vocal and performance range, but it was Waxahachie’s Kaiden Maines who blew everyone away as Lady of the Lake in Spamalot and will also represent North Texas in New York.
Perhaps the most charming thing about these talented performers is their initial disbelief when their names or schools are called. A bewildered Frederickson said, “I was so overwhelmed, it really didn’t register that my name was called until all the other guys on stage surrounded me.”
“I probably had the most pageant-girl reaction and brought my hands up,” giggled Maines, a senior moving on to Oklahoma City University. “But I had so much fun with my role.”
A stunning, streamer-filled finale featured almost 100 students from 41 schools singing and dancing to “Stronger” from Finding Neverland, making it the best closing number yet. Jordan says that this is his favorite night of the year, and it’s quickly becoming mine as well.
» You can see the full list of winners and nominees here