BWW Reviews: Day One of LA's Next Great Stage Star 2014
On Sunday January 5, with the outside temperature an unbelievably warm 75 degrees, indoors at Sterling's Upstairs at the Federal everyone was about to experience a delicious rush of cool refreshing air as 20 new young stage stars readied to take their first bows in LA's Next Great Stage Star 2014. The opening was a tribute to genius composer Marvin Hamlisch, who left us much too early in 2012, and under Jackie Evans lovely staging the 20 new artists opened their hearts and voices to share the warmth of "What I Did For Love" from Hamlisch's A Chorus Line. Concert master Michael Sterling took the stage and introduced one by one the bright array of talent each of whom in turn performed a song of their own choosing.
Under the reliably deft musical direction of James Lent, the program turned out to be an unbelievable mix of musical numbers, some well known, old and new, like "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess, "Much More" from The Fantastiks, "Life of the Party" from The Wild Party, "I Can't Say No" from Oklahoma! or "If Ever I Would Leave You" from Camelot. Many, however, were less familiar such as "I Will Follow You" from Jerry Herman's rarely produced chestnut Milk and Honey, "Another Winter in a Summer Town" from the eclectic Grey Gardens or totally new like a number from the 2013 rock romance Rooms. How refreshing is this to see new talent coming up with songs usually reserved only for die-hard theatrical fans! These kids did their homework; they really care about the composers and the material...and making their 'audition' a truly exciting learning experience. The judges that day, musical theatre directors TJ Dawson and David F.M. Vaughn, and agents Steven Dry, Sasha Passero and Anthony Boyer were quick to point out through their critiques, that this is an audition, not a cabaret, and since it is not opera but theatre, every singer must work more on developing character and personality than on the music in the delivery of their chosen song. It was hard to argue with Travis Leland's strong acting chops as he physically took on the world in his presentation of "Melisonde" from 110 in the Shade or with Daniella Painton's comedic charm in her working of "Gooch's Song" from Mame, or with Jade Johnson's fierce determination and attitude with "I'm Not Afraid of Anything" from Jason Robert Brown's brilliant Songs for a New World. Great singing emanated from everyone with special attention also to Brandon Hynum, Adienne Visnic, Jennifer Kranz, Cameron Sczempka, Katrice Gavino, Kimberly Hessler, Alexandra Arthur, Michael Byrne, and Katie Porter, among others. Musically, it was a splendid afternoon for surprises.
I will be back for the finale February 16, and if I've learned anything from viewing this contest over the last several years, the participants do indeed learn. Judges spend a good part of their criticisms encouraging contestants to have a great headshot and resume - that truly represent who you are and what you've accomplished - and insisting on good personal appearance for the audition. Most looked stunning, with some like Katie Porter and Daniella Painton even going so far as to dress in character for their tunes. One more comment: I'm sure contestants will get better and better over the weeks to come; some will blossom beyond my wildest imaginings. I can't wait for February 16; I'm sure to be surprised.
Thanks to Michael Sterling, Peter Welkin, James Lent, the one and only Barbara Van Orden... and to the Federal and its staff for a quite scrumptious brunch menu; it was a long, but fun and fulfilling afternoon.
For more info and background on the contest, visit:
left to right: Brandon Hynum, Jade Johnson
left to right: Adrienne Visnic, Cameron Sczempka
left to right: Cy Creamer, Kimberly Hessler
left to right: Michael Byrne, Katrice Gavino