Dallas — It’s all about the students.
As Dallas Summer Musicals presented their 8th Annual High School Musical Theatre Awards at the Music Hall at Fair Park on May 9, 2019, one could almost forget that this was a competition. Students from different schools mingled and chatted with each other, and an air of optimism and joy permeated their faces. Despite changes to the program that resulted in a noticeably different mood to the awards ceremony, young talent always dominated center stage.
The awards ceremony (headed by DSM Director of Education and Community Partnerships Glynis Brault) takes its cues from the Tony Awards, complete with a red-carpet entrance for the named nominees, paparazzi, and high schoolers donning their finest attire.
Mark Brymer returned as musical director and conductor, as did Penny Ann Maas in her role as choreographer. Sixty-one schools participated this year, with sixty-four total productions adjudicated throughout the year by panel of judges from the performing arts industry. The vast majority of participants are Metroplex-area schools with some coming from Lubbock, Brownwood, and Tyler. In the past, schools from Abilene, Waco, Oklahoma, and Arkansas have even joined.
It’s a chance for competition, scholarships, but most importantly connections and camaraderie. Winners from the Best Actor/Actress category advance to the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, also known as the Jimmy Awards, held in New York City every June. Last year’s winners, Noah Aguilar and Sierra Roberson from Lubbock’s Frenship High School, chatted about their experience last summer.
“It was the most incredible week of my life,” Aguilar (now graduated) recalled. “For both of us, it was our first time in New York, so seeing the Broadway shows and meeting 78 other musical theater students was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Roberson, a current senior, chimed in. “It was intense but amazing, and I really grew as a person. I grew in confidence and was able to relax this year, enjoy the process, and just make friends. Theater is not a competition; we can all sit back and appreciate the art we all do together.”
Regardless of the winners, the experience holds immeasurable benefits, something DSM President Ken Novice is highly passionate about. “The number of kids who auditioned, got cast, studied their lines, learned, worked with a director, a choreographer, a vocal coach got a priceless experience. Kids who didn’t even get nominated are gaining self-esteem and confidence through this program. The core of this program is how you impact them, whether they later go into science or theater.”
One of the most valuable experiences that I’ve seen in the years covering the event is the students’ ability to approach the process with humility, open-mindedness, compassion, and a willingness for excellence and encouragement. In other words, I’ve never come across any pompous high school attitudes, a trend which hopefully continues. The students I interview seem star-struck at their own appearance at the awards and they have nothing but gushing praise for their peers.
Keller Central’s Max Vry, who was nominated for Best Featured Performer in Newsies, said of his experience, “It’s been phenomenal. Everyone has been so nice and supportive.”
Fellow nominee Maddie Nelson of Carroll Senior echoed the sentiment. “It’s fun to get to know talented people from around the area. We all have a common interest and feel dedicated to it. It’s helped us put on a really good show.”
Vocal coach Tina Walsh had plentiful praise for them. For this year’s awards, she was able to see all the productions, most of them live. When asked about her work with the Best Actor/Actress nominees, she was almost at a loss for words.
“They’re delightful!” she exclaimed. “I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to work with them, get to know them one-on-one. We all had the best time. I told them, ‘No matter where this goes, you are all superstars, and it’s a true honor to work with you and see you all blossom.’”
Speaking of growing and blooming, a few area schools stood out for some new and remarkable achievements. Cedar Hill High School’s Newsies won two out of their three nominations (Best Ensemble and Jeremiah Tarvar for Best Featured Performer), and as far as I can tell, this is their first year entering the awards program. Grand Prairie Fine Arts Academy has typically had a strong showing in the last few years, but this year’s production of Bullets Over Broadway garnered 12 nominations out of the 15 categories and won three. Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts, Southlake Carroll, Wylie East, and Waxahachie all boasted double-digit nominations.
The students don’t just take home trophies, though, and this year, DSM handed out 14 scholarships. This vital aspect wouldn’t be possible without their donors, and they specifically honor founding HSMTA donors Leah and Jerry Fullinwider by awarding a Broadway professional from North Texas who has impacted their community and the industry. This year’s Leah and Jerome M. Fullinwider award went to Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, a Plano West graduate who has zipped up the ranks of Broadway stars. He delivered an inspiring speech before lighting up the stage with a suave rendition of “Broadway Baby.”
This year’s ceremony was emceed by WFAA’s Teresa Woodard, and a bevy of industry professionals handed out awards. It was especially exciting to see Nycole Ray and Melissa Young, artistic leaders in the Dallas Black Dance Theatre organization, hand out Best Choreography. The show opened with a medley from Frozen (a DSM season show next year) featuring nominees for Best Actor/Actress, Best Supporting Actor/Actress, and Best Featured Performer. The latter group has been condensed into one category, rather than split by gender as in previous years.
That’s not the only change. The number of participating schools dropped this year from 75 to 61, so the Hall didn’t feel as packed as it did in 2018, and the Best Costume award didn’t have the usual parade of nominated costumes. Also, the absence of Ron Corning and his witty one-liners were sorely missed, as they helped lighten the formality of the ceremony. As for the awards themselves, Social Media Star was dropped from the roster, but three more were added. Outstanding Educator went to Andy Reynolds of Waxachachie High School, Backstage Excellence Award went to Sabastian Felon of Grapevine High, and Guyer’s D’Shaud Howard received the Spirit Award.
Despite a more subdued mood to the ceremony, the performances impressed as usual. The eight Best Musical nominees each delivered musical numbers, with a few standouts. Independence High School had the most interesting. In presenting “America” from West Side Story, they had the Jets on stage singing some of the dissenting lines about life in a new country. It was an intriguing take on the song and allowed for all performers to be seen, even though the segment usually includes only one part of the cast. FWAFA showed a hilarious sequence from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, GPFAA brought down the house with Bullets Over Broadway, and Wylie East took us “Downtown” with their sassy section from Little Shop of Horrors.
In the end, it was Bullets that took home the coveted award. GPFAA student Darnell Robinson, nominated for Best Supporting Actor, described the energy of the production with a huge grin on his face. “It was a fast-moving train. It’s set in the 1920s, so it was crazy.”
Best Actor/Actress medleys are always the pinnacle, though, for a number of reasons. Individual talent is jaw-dropping, but even better is the manner in which the segment comes together. Starkly different characters have their moments to shine but also perform as a cohesive unit. What’s also unique about this award presentation is that the nominees are on stage when the winner is announced. The audience then gets to experience the genuine shock on the winner’s face upon hearing his or her name and the encouragement of the other nominees as they congratulate their friend with hugs and cheers. Frenship’s Coby Rogers won Best Leading Actor for his portrayal of Lord Evelyn Oakleigh in Anything Goes, and Guyer’s Haley Dortch took home Best Leading Actress for her role as Deloris Van Cartier in Sister Act.
I learned something new this year as I spoke with Rogers (who will attend Pepperdine University next year) after the ceremony, regarding the amount of student collaboration. “We bounced off each other so much,” he said, still wide-eyed with wonder. “One kid would do a move one way and we’d say, ‘That’s amazing, let’s do it that way.’ It was such a collaborative process, and we had so much fun together.”
Dortch (finishing her junior year) also heaped accolades on her fellow nominees. “I absolutely adore every one of them. I thought it would be super competitive, but they’re so sweet. They’re the most talented group of ladies I’ve ever met.”
This will likely not be the last we’ve seen of those two. Novice mentioned the impact beyond the awards. “Students from this program who go to the Jimmy’s, whether they win or not, tend to have a career on Broadway. We are launching careers with this program.”
No doubt all students involved, winners or not, will make some serious waves in the future.
Grand Prairie Fine Arts Academy – Bullets Over Broadway
All Saints' Episcopal School – Into the Woods
Centennial HS – Newsies
BEST MUSICAL DIRECTION
Frenship HS – Anything Goes
Mansfield HS – Catch Me If You Can
BEST SCENIC DESIGN
Grand Prairie Fine Arts Academy – Bullets Over Broadway
BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Waxahachie HS – Mary Poppins
BEST LIGHTING DESIGN
Carroll Senior HS – Side Show
BEST TECHNICAL EXECUTION
Waxahachie HS – Mary Poppins
BEST ENSEMBLE / CHORUS
Cedar Hill HS – Newsies
BEST LEADING ACTOR
Frenship HS – i - Coby Rogers
BEST LEADING ACTRESS
Guyer HS – Sister Act - Haley Dortch
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Frenship HS – Anything Goes - Josh Fredenburg
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Grand Prairie Fine Arts Academy – Bullets Over Broadway - Joryhebel Ginorio
BEST FEATURED PERFORMER
Cedar Hill HS – Newsies - Jeremiah Tarver
OUTSTANDING EDUCATOR AWARD
Andy Reynolds – Waxahachie High School
BACKSTAGE EXCELLENCE AWARD
Sabastian Felon – Grapevine High School
DSM HSMTA SPIRIT AWARD
D’Shaud Howard – Guyer High School
LEAH & JEROME M. FULLINWIDER AWARD
Hunter Ryan Herdlicka