BWW Review: The Broadway Star of the Future Awards Showcase at the Straz Center, Hosted by Justin Sargent
The walls shook. I got "the chill," where something so extraordinary is happening that I sit up, my arms covered in goose bumps. The audience, like me, also sat up collectively in their seats and then leaned forward, mouths agape in awe. This was really happening, and it was a mere teenager voice that was making it happen.
It was a moment anyone in attendance at the BROADWAY STAR OF THE FUTURE AWARDS SHOWCASE will remember. That instant that deep, resonate voice, a teenage voice, was heard by us. We had all seen so many shows in our lives, from Broadway to touring companies to high school productions, but we had never heard a voice like this. Ever. A voice that could move mountains. Beyond talent, beyond professionalism, beyond power, beyond age. And I kept thinking, "That young man singing, the one holding the audience in the palm of his hands, is only eighteen years old." I wondered if Norm Lewis sounded like this as a teen. We had already been gifted with the finest high school talent from the Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg area that day, with more to come. But this young man, from the PCCA at Gibbs High School, took the stage, opened his mouth to sing "Hell Fire" from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the rest is history. Or will be. The young man's name is Noah Diggs, and at the end of the ceremony, he was crowned the Outstanding Actor of the BROADWAY STAR OF THE FUTURE (and will be venturing to New York City this summer to have a chance at the famous Jimmy Awards).
Noah Diggs. Remember that name. A star was born on that stage on Sunday. And I know the young man won't let my words go to his head, because this is just a springboard; what follows to make his dreams come true over the years will be a work ethic like no other, luck, timing, and drive to add to his immense talent. But boy, does he have the goods to go far!
Diggs was not alone. So many of those performers showcased to a capacity crowd at the Ferguson Theatre at the Straz Center last Sunday afternoon were wonderfully talented. And of those, another stood shoulder to shoulder with Diggs. His name is Caleb Quezon from Tampa Prep, and his performance as the Emcee in Cabaret ("Willkommen") was perhaps the audience favorite of the day.
This was one of the most enjoyable versions of the Cabaret opening that I have ever experienced (it's one of my favorite shows, which I have directed in the past, and I have seen it many, many times). Quezon hopped into the audience, sitting on laps, pointing people out. He can sing, act, dance like there's no tomorrow. And the joy of performing that emanated from him cannot be pushed aside. He was very different than Diggs, and I know the choice of the judges was tough (they can only pick one winner), but Quezon gave one of the finest performances I have seen all year, which includes professional shows.
The other actors vying for the same award were also very strong: Alonso High School's Jacob Atkins charming his way through "How Can I Say Goodbye?" from Zombie Prom; Blake High's imposing and talented Luke McAndrew giving his all in Side Show's "Private Conversations"; and the astounding Chris Loving, so good in the part of Man in Chair, performing a song from Palm Harbor University High School's The Drowsy Chaperone, even though his character barely sings in the show. They were all impeccable, showcasing our area's finest, but Diggs was the standout of that very impressive lot.
The female performers also did stunning work. The two very able young ladies from HB Plant High School's production of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods--Logan Franke and Maggie Musco--were quite strong and should be extremely proud of their work, but both songs ("Last Midnight" and "Moments in the Woods") work even better in the context of the show. Emily McAndrew's "Surabaya Santa," from Blake High's production of Songs For a New World, was simply terrific.
The standout females of the day turned out to be Rebekah Vallejo for her hilarious rendition of "Just One Step," from Songs For a New World, and Emily Escobar for her wonderful rendition of "Easy to Say" from Alonso High's Zombie Prom. Judging from their work here (as well as their performances in the actual show, which was also adjudicated), it would be close race between these two, but Alonso's Escobar took home the Broadway Star of the Future Award for Outstanding Actress. (Like Diggs, she will also venture to New York City and the Jimmy Awards.)
It was a joyous atmosphere, celebrating the best of the best in local high school theatre. The show opened with a robust, if somewhat messy, rendition of "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" from Hello, Dolly! and closed with a memorable version of "This is Me" from The Greatest Showman featuring all of the nominees. We then got to see the actors and actresses up for Broadway Star of the Future, as well as songs from the various choices for Outstanding Musicals: Palm Harbor University High Schools' Forever Plaid and The Drowsy Chaperone; Blake High School's Side Show and Songs for a New World; and PCCA at Gibbs High School's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (East Lake High's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was also selected, but the cast did not perform at the ceremonies.) Of the performances, the harmonizing heaven of the Forever Plaid quartet really made me wish I had seen that particular production.
These winners were selected from 28 high schools and 31 shows. Those adjudicated but not already mentioned include Bayshore Christian School's and Manatee School for the Arts separate productions of Into the Woods; Berkeley Prep's Les Miserables; Boca Ciega High School's Guys and Dolls; Bradenton Christian School's The Hunchback of Note Dame; Chamberlain High School's Little Shop of Horrors; Clearwater Central Catholic's Bye Bye Birdie; Clearwater High School's and Dixie Hollins High School's separate productions of The Sound of Music; Countryside High School's Nunsense: The Mega Musical; Gaither High School's Man of La Mancha; Mitchell High School's Godspell; Newsome High School's Grease; Osceola Fundamental High School's We Will Rock You; River Ridge High School's Oliver!; Riverview High's A Chorus Line; Seminole High School's Footloose; Sickles High School's Legally Blonde: The Musical; and Tampa Prep's In the Heights. Wow, that's quite an eclectic group of musicals, each one judged by a panel of experts who then narrow it down to pick the finalists.
In the end, Blake High School, PCCA at Gibbs High School, and Palm Harbor University High School were the big winners of the BROADWAY STAR OF THE FUTURE AWARDS. These are three of the top local schools for theatre, so for those of us who have enjoyed their productions in the past, this is not headline news. But it's so inspiring that so many local schools have joined the list, have put their productions and their young casts on the line, and are part of this magical process. Hopefully there will be even more schools involved next year.
The ceremony was wonderfully entertaining, thanks to the staff at the Straz and Patel, including Vice President of Education Suzanne Livesay, Managing Director Audrey Siegler, theater administrator Steven Jones, theater teacher Sarah Berland, and lead theater teacher Matthew Belopavlovich.
The festivities were well-hosted by Broadway's very own Justin Sargent. Sargent is one of those great Broadway actors who always gives back to the community. He found his love of theatre locally--as a student at Mitchell High School who performed in a variety of community theatre shows at the Richey Suncoast Theatre in New Port Richey. He has gone from those humble days into starring roles on the Great White Way as Peter Parker in the infamous Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark and as the electric Drew in Rock of Ages. He has a dream resume with various musicals (Bonnie and Clyde, Pippin, The Rocky Horror Show and West Side Story) and TV shows (Mr. Robot and Law & Order: SVU, to name just two of them).. And if you were fortunate enough to see Jesus Christ Superstar: Live on TV last Easter, then you saw him as the most electric ensemble member, the one who stood out no matter whatever scene he was in. As a performer, he has it all--talent, charisma, looks, zest and that "X" factor that cannot be explained. He even showed off his vocal chops during the ceremonies with a vibrant rendition of "Don't Stop Believin'" from Rock of Ages with the Actor and Actress finalists.
But a decade ago, Justin Sargent was not unlike these young folks. He started on a high school stage just like they have. And look at him now. That could be one of them, or maybe two, or maybe even more. The audience to the event was certainly grateful. We got to witness something special, like a once-in-a-lifetime lunar eclipse. For one time only, we got to see the Broadway Star of Today perform with so many potential Broadway Stars of the Future.
It's not hyperbole to say that the future sure looks bright.