Dallas — “This is the greatest show!”
Truer words were never belted from the stage at the Music Hall at Fair Park than these lines from the recent film The Greatest Showman during the opening number featuring the named student nominees. The Dallas Summer Musicals High School Musical Theatre Awards is positively the best annual show in Dallas.
Presented at the Music Hall at Fair Park and modeled after the Tony Awards, the evening began with a red carpet entrance, then an action-packed evening of award presentations and performances. Mark Brymer returned as musical director and conductor, and Penny Ayn Maas reprised her role in musical staging and choreography, assisted by Theo Spencer (Frenship HS), Kylie Hilliard (Northwest HS) and Bryson Jackson (McKinney Boyd HS).
The program, however, encompasses so much more.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of the awards show, now in its seventh year, is the effect of healthy competition. Program director Tracy Jordan marveled at how the growth of the program creates growth in the schools.
“For every nominee that you see up there in those categories, we could have nominated an additional new crop, equally as talented,” he said with astonishment. “We just see the level of talent getting deeper and deeper. My judges complain every year that it gets harder and harder to choose the best candidates, but that’s a sign that the competition is breeding stronger performances. The level of work being done by these kids is nothing short of professional.”
An analysis of the nominees and honorable mentions illustrates this effect. Out of the 79 productions from 75 participating schools from more than 40 school districts, 45 schools received nominations in one or more of the 16 main categories, and an additional 15 schools received one or more honorable mentions in those same categories.
Keeping up, so far? In other words, this year marks a significant increase in the number of schools making their mark in the program. While most of them come from North Texas, students as far as Lubbock, Waco, southeast Texas, southern Oklahoma, and even Arkansas are represented here.
To emphasize the point even more, no one school swept the awards. A handful of productions received a good number of nominations, but the number of awards each school received was pretty evenly distributed. Rowlett and Plano Senior took home three each. Byron Nelson, Grand Prairie Fine Arts, and Frenship each garnered two, and Southwest Christian, Richardson, Mansfield, Pearce, and Independence each received one.
A notable addition includes a permanent 17th category to reward social media marketing. The Social Star Award goes to the school had the most uses of the official hashtag #DSMHSMTA18 in their social media posts, and this year’s award went to Independence High School in Frisco.
Another exciting inclusion increases recognition of technical theater achievements. While four awards go towards specific design and tech elements, a new scholarship was awarded for tech theater pursuits in higher education, thanks to a generous donation from Joshua Curlett of Irving-based Sound Productions.
Totaled with the other scholarships given throughout the evening, DSM contributed $55,000 towards these students’ higher education. The Best Lead Actor/Actress winners each receive $10,000, and 15 other students received awards. To date, the program has given $190,000 in scholarships.
Last year’s Lead Actress winner Shelby Priddy (who attends Texas Christian University) remarked, “I’ll be forever grateful for that scholarship. It’s so helpful, makes such an impact, and it allows students to pursue their passions.”
Through the standards of excellence and financial assistance it provides, a practical effect of the awards is the opportunities it provides students once they graduate high school. I chatted with four previous winners on their happenings since starting college, and the world is wide open for them.
Chris Clark (Best Actor, 2015) just finished his junior year at Texas State University. His ensemble roles in A Chorus Line and Ragtime have sharpened his dancing skills, and he’s landed lead roles in Music Theatre Wichita’s summer season. Two-time Best Actor winner John Frederickson joined Clark at TSU, and enjoyed quite a bit of success in his freshman year, including honing his dancing skills.
You can find Priddy at Casa Mañana in Fort Worth this summer in Mamma Mia and Sweeney Todd. Her experience under Maas proved invaluable.
Kaiden Maines (Best Actress, 2016) has been busy at Oklahoma City University. In addition to starring in her first mainstage show, she’s minoring in broadcasting, proving that theater skills easily transfer to other fields. She’s working for minor league baseball team Oklahoma City Dodgers as a host for the games to develop those skills, and also working with Oklahoma Children’s Theatre. “Busyness equals happiness,” she said with a chuckle.
DSM President Ken Novice sees a bright future for these aspiring artists. “The talent that comes through this program is mind-blowing, and it makes me feel good about the future of our field,” he marveled. “I was just in NY seeing shows, and you see people 25 and 30 years old starring in Broadway shows, and that’s only a few years away from some of these students. We’ve got our next crop of stars.”
Although it seems like the state of performing arts might be dismal in some areas, with five-time emcee Ron Corning of WFAA lamenting frequent cuts in the arts, numerous schools seem to be doing something right. Local actor Jason Bias has judged for the last three years, and the level of excellence and school financial support stand out to him. “[The schools] continue to invest more in theater, so it’s nice to go around to these schools that normally would give money to football programs, and you’re seeing big budget shows being put on at high schools.”
Another encouraging facet of this year’s group of schools is an increased diversity over previous years. The high school theater scene seems to be moving closer to reflecting the cultural range in the Metroplex.
The future is bright for these young professionals, and the beginning of each awards show for the past three years offers more encouragement. Since 2016, the Leah & Jerome M. Fullinwider Award recognizes a Broadway professional with roots in North Texas. This year, Tony-award winning Hockaday alum Victoria Clark received the award and performed a charming song from her iconic role in A Light in the Piazza with some very lucky students.
The evening continued with award presentations, witty quips from Corning, and performances from the Best Musical nominees. Byron Nelson High School shared what it’s like to be a member of the spookiest family in pop culture with a Latin-inspired “When You’re An Addams” from The Addams Family (a popular entry this year), featuring gestural choreography and dance steps from ages past, as deceased Addams joined the party. Rowlett High School continued the Latin theme with non-stop choreography and impressive kicks in “Buenos Aires” from Evita, then Plano Senior darkened the mood with an intense “Façade” from Jekyll and Hyde, highlighting an impressive ladies chorus.
The cast from Frenship High School’s Cinderella traveled far and wide to deliver the closing scene from the musical, complete with ballet and partnering choreography and astonishing acrobatics. J.J. Pearce students amazed the audience before intermission with the complex and emotional “One Day More” from Les Misérables, and Forney High School opened the second act with a sprightly number from Little Shop of Horrors.
Waxahachie High students displayed their hilarious melodramatic skills with a sequence from The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Grapevine Faith appropriately ended with the upbeat, colorful “I’m A Believer” from Shrek. They all proved feasts for the senses, but it was Plano Senior that took home Best Musical.
The Best Lead Actor/Actress medleys are always the highlight. Not only do they showcase individual talent, but the arrangements never fail to impress. When one student sings the solo, the remaining performers act as the ensemble, and in the case of contrasting characters, it can be quite hilarious.
For example, Pearce’s Colton Strickland commanded the stage with his imposing Javert from Les Mis, but when it came time for Tanner Diggs’ solo as Seymour from Little Shop, Strickland turned into a hip-bopping Motown singer without missing a beat. Of all the incredible gentlemen nominated, Frenship’s Noah Aguilar won for his portrayal of Topher in Cinderella.
I never envy the judges, especially this time with the group of young women performing for Best Lead Actress. Frenship was doubly fortunate this year, as Sierra Roberson—who exhibited a voice straight from the Broadway stage—won as the titular character in Cinderella.
The evening closed with an inspiring, intricately staged rendition of “You Will Be Found” from Dear Evan Hansen. And confetti. Lots and lots of confetti.
Every year of these awards seems to bring larger-than-life talent, increased excellence, and record-breaking participation. If you don’t believe me by now when I say that this is the best annual event in Dallas, join them next year and be amazed. I know I will be.
FULL LIST OF WINNERS
Best Featured Actress: Isabelle Artista, Grand Prairie Fine Arts Academy, Heathers
Best Featured Actor: Darnell Robinson, Grand Prairie Fine Arts Academy, Heathers
Best Choreography: Rowlett HS, Evita
Best Lighting Design: Plano Senior HS, Jekyll and Hyde
Best Stage Crew/ Technical Execution: JJ Pearce HS, Les Misérables
Best Scenic Design: Rowlett HS, Evita
Best Student Orchestra: Mansfield HS, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Best Musical Direction: Byron Nelson HS, The Addams Family
Best Supporting Actress: Ysa Salas, Rowlett HS, Evita
Best Supporting Actor: Zachary Garcia, Byron Nelson HS, The Addams Family
Best Direction: Plano Senior HS, Jekyll and Hyde
Best Ensemble: Richardson HS, The Addams Family
Best Costume Design: Southwest Christian School, Anything Goes
Best Leading Actress: Sierra Roberson, Frenship HS, Cinderella
Best Leading Actor: Noah Aguilar, Frenship HS, Cinderella
Best Musical: Plano Senior HS, Jekyll and Hyde