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BWW Reviews: LA's NEXT GREAT STAGE STAR 2015 Gets Off to a Riproaring Start

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Loosely patterned after "an audition process", this 9th annual fully produced event is geared to discovering new talent between the ages of 18 and 32 for the musical theatre stage.

As has become the standard, 20 contestants compete for the title, a $1000 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, 11 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.

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 4 - February 1). The Stage Star Finale (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.

On Sunday January 4 at Sterling's Upstairs at the Federal, LA's Next Great Stage Star 2015 got off to a fantabulous start with 20 uber talented contestants. This year the 6-week competition is dedicated to American composer Irving Berlin, and a vibrant mix of "God Bless America" and "There's No Business Like Show Business" involving all 20 participants served as the opener. It was beautifully choreographed and staged by Joe Giamalva and Susie McGiver Ewing. 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 9 years ago serves as congenial master of ceremonies for each of the 6 presentations. Barbara Van Orden serves as co-executive producer. A word or two about this great lady further on.

There were no lags in the first presentation except a short delay in starting due to technical difficulties. The Federal staff provided a delicious brunch for the occasion with ample breakfast/lunch choices. 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 appeared on or off-Broadway since the year 2000. Most made some pretty keen and challenging choices primarily from current Broadway shows such as Matilda or recent ones like The Bridges of Madison County, Catch Me If You Can or Hands on a Hard Body. The 20 contestants (pictured above) include: Elizabeth Adabale, Claire Adams, Alex Allen, Griffin Barr, D.J. Blickenstaff, Melvin Biteng, Hajin Cho, Cole Cuomo, Kelley Dorney, Arielle Fishman, Hannah Goodman, Alexandra Hartman, Rachael Johnson, Mack Kary, Jotape Lockwood, Dylan MacDonald, Elizabeth Pye, Patrick Reilly, Matthew Solomon, and Tory Stolper.

Professional judges, who include LA agents and theatrical managers, musical theatre casting directors and 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 the 4th were; directors Larry Raben, Todd Nielsen, 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.

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 a difficult one this year, as all of the contestants have great vocal ability. It's going to be close, but here are some to keep our eyes on: Jotape Lockwood, who blew us away with "My Problem Right There" from Hands on a Hard Body, Kelley Dorney, such a fine actress with"Sonya Alone", Melvin Biteng with "Run Away with Me", cute/pretty Rachael Johnson with "Live Out Loud", Tory Stolper with another rousing "I'm Gone" from Hands on a Hard Body, Elizabeth Adabale with a big, sassy delivery on "See, I'm Smiling", D.J. Blickenstaff, a really fine vocal instrument on "Wandering" from The Bridges of Madison County, Cole Cuomo dynamic on "Anytime" and pretty Claire Adams with an equally dynamite "How Did We Come To This?" from The Wild Party. 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 mention about Barbara Van Orden, co-executive producer of LA's Next Great Stage Star. Barbara is a terrific 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 the 8th!

chatting with Jotape Lockwood, who I first saw perform at Candlelight in Spamalot


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