Loosely patterned after "an audition process", this 10th annual fully produced event is geared to discovering new talent between the ages of 18 and 32 for the musical theatre stage. This year the contest is generously sponsored/presented by Princess Cruises.

As has become the standard, 20 contestants compete for the title, a $2500 cash prize, a headlining engagement at Sterling's Upstairs during the New Year, professional representation in the business of musical theatre, and other valuable prizes. To date, over a dozen former contestants have already made their Broadway and/or Off-Broadway debuts; while nearly another 100 have either starred in Broadway U.S. National Tours; Regional U.S. Musical Theatre productions; Las Vegas Hotel sit-downs of Broadway Musicals; on board in lavish production shows presented by some of the world's most prestigious cruise lines; or have starred on stages at numerous Southern California Theme Parks such as Disneyland's California Adventure and Lego Land. Internationally, Tokyo Disney is also host to Stage Star talent. In addition this year due to the participation of Princess Cruises, there will be a $5000 west coast or Mexican cruise prize for a lucky audience member.

The event is judged by nearly two dozen Los Angeles-based Broadway Musical Theatre Producers, Directors, Casting Directors, and Equity theatre agents who not only score each contestant's performance, but offer live critical feedback each week with no eliminations until the final week of competition. Audience members may also vote for their favorite contestant(s) during Weeks 1 through 5 (January 3 - January 31). The Stage Star Finale (Monday, February 8) reveals the title winner and top 4 runners up with that day's competition voted on by all of the competition's returning judges.

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On Sunday January 3, for the first time on the mainstage of the acclaimed NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood, LA's Next Great Stage Star 2016 Presented by Princess Cruises got off to a fantastic start with 20 very talented contestants. This year the 6-week competition is dedicated to American composer Jerry Herman, and his rollicking "It's Today" from Mame, involving all 20 participants, served as the opener. It was beautifully choreographed and staged by Lee Martino. Brilliant pianist James Lent once again serves as musical director through February 8, Peter Welkin as associate producer and of course, the man of the evening executive producer Michael Sterling, who founded the contest 10 years ago, serves as congenial master of ceremonies for each of the 6 presentations. Barbara Van Orden serves as co-executive producer. More about Barbara's invaluable contributions later!

There were no lags in the first presentation except a short delay in starting due to last minute audience arrivals, turning the house SRO. Sterling keeps the ball rolling, as he introduces each contestant, asks each one a couple of informal questions to warm them up like "How was your holiday?" and then each sings a song that they chose from the week's category, the first being a song from a show that has appeared on Broadway since 2004. Most made some pretty keen and challenging choices primarily from current Broadway shows such as Matilda or more recent ones like Andrew Lloyd Weber's new School of Rock, Something Rotten, and Tony-winning Fun Home. The 20 contestants in alphabetical order are: Edward Anderson, Bethany Baderdeen, Shira Bouskila, Jonathan Brett, Rachel Burcham, Abbe Drake, Megan Fleming, LaRece Hawkins, Mookie Johnson, Hallie Mayer, Sean McCallon, Brandon Moua, Sami Nye, James Padilla, Carlye Porrazzo, Maggie Randolph, Eran Scoggins, Aliya Stuart, Deane Sullivan, and Judd Yort.

Professional judges, who include LA agents and theatrical managers, musical theatre directors, directors/producers/writers/choreographers, give each contestant pertinent comments about their appearance, choice of song - whether it suits their voice, vocal choices which includes acting ability and overall good professional suggestions to help them in auditions. The judges for January 3 were: actors/directors Calvin Remsberg, Joshua Finkel, Daniel Dawson of 3-D Theatricals, and Equity agent Steven Dry. All judges are friendly and cooperative as opposed to overly critical and mean as we have seen with certain judges on TV competitions. The best comment, I believe, came from Calvin Remsberg, a premiere LA vocal coach, who told contestants to "make sure your choice of song tells us immediately who you are".

Rather than vote as most audience members do, giving each contestant a rating of 1-3, I take notes and pick out some who I feel are most likely to be in the winner's circle on February 8, the last day of the contest. It's going to be close, but here are some to keep our eyes on: LaRece Hawkins, whose dynamic voice and presence with "That's Rich" from Newsies puts her on top, James Padilla, another knockout with "No More Roxanne" from The Man Who Would Be King, stunning Maggie Randolph with the simple, yet beautiful "My House" from Matilda, Brandon Moua so strong with "Music in My Soul" from Memphis, Hallie Mayer with a gorgeous delivery of "I Don't Need a Roof" from Big Fish, Eran Scoggins such a good actor with "Don't Let Me Go" from Shrek, Aliya Stuart as a sturdy "Right Hand Man" from Something Rotten...and who could overlook pretty Abbe Drake who gave such a funny, warm delivery to "Changing My Major to Joan" from Fun Home. These are just choices. Everyone was wonderful. I can't wait to return on February 8 to see the continued improvements and growth of all of these great participants.

Just a brief but important shout-out to Barbara Van Orden, co-executive producer of LA's Next Great Stage Star 2016 Presented by Princess Cruises. Barbara is a sensational performer and humanitarian and really knows talent when she sees it. As a counselor there is no one finer; her help, advice and overall support for these young candidates are magnanimous. She's the best!

See you on February 8th!

(front page photo credit: Peter Welkin)

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From This Author Don Grigware