STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The Rising Star Awards

STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: The Rising Star Awards So what are my favorite theatrical awards? The Tonys? Well, I have had good times there, as a reporter, attendee, and even a seat-filler (subbing for Ian McKellen in 1981, when his Salieri in Amadeus nabbed him Best Actor).

So what are my favorite theatrical awards? The Tonys? Well, I have had good times there, as a reporter, attendee, and even a seat-filler (subbing for Ian McKellen in 1981, when his Salieri in Amadeus nabbed him Best Actor).

Or the Drama Desks, which over the years, I've produced, written, and emceed? Or the Theatre World Awards, which I've enjoyed as a guest and whose board I'll soon be joining? Or the New Jersey Theatre Group's Applause Awards, where each of the state's 19 Equity theaters applauds the individual or corporation that's really done something special for them during the year?

Well, as of May 20, and probably now and forever, my favorite theatrical awards will be the Rising Stars, recently bestowed for the second year in a row by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ.

So you're assuming that Best Actor went to Lee Roy Reams for his Billy in the Paper Mill's recent No, No, Nanette and Best Actress was bestowed on Judy McLane for her amazing Evita. Not at all. The Rising Stars are trophies handed out to the outstanding high school performers of New Jersey.

Yes, high schoolers. It's the brainchild of Susan Speidel, the Paper Mill's Director of Education. She's run around New Jersey for years, noticing that there's real talent in the state's secondary schools. Wouldn't it be great, she thought, if some of these high school kids could be honored in a ceremony analogous to the Tonys? And so she convinced executive producer Angelo Del Rossi and artistic director Robert Johanson to initiate a night in May when the state's superior student-performers could be cited. Speidel then convinced 18 of her Paper Mill colleagues to go out after a hard day's work to see high school shows. Then she further seduced 28 other theater pros to head to Linden, Ramsey, and Morristown.

So, right on the very stage where this season Gavin McLeod shone as Honore in Gigi and Stefanie Powers humiliated herself in Applause, Paper Mill announced roughly seven nominees in 20 categories, and gave out 20 trophies, each sporting a stylized star. Each was, I must admit, more handsome, sturdy, and expensive-looking than many of the other professional theatrical awards.

The show even mirrored the 1967 Tonys, with Westfield High's Cabaret, nominated as Outstanding Overall Production, opening the show with Wilkommen. Right after that, the first award told the 700-plus in attendance were in for something special. The category was Outstanding Performance by a Child Actor, i.e., a kid not yet in high school, but one needed to play a grade-schooler. So Barry Cavanaugh (Patrick in Bayonne High's Mame) got up there, accepted his prize -- and then the four-foot-two bundle of dynamite took out a piece of paper from which he read his acceptance speech. I'd like to thank God, he began. What a pro!

Speidel and Company were smart to honor the other end of the age spectrum, too, via Outstanding Teacher/Alumnus Performance. Lee Adams has often said that one of his greatest Bye Bye Birdie pleasures is seeing a high school production where a teacher or principal, cast as Harry McAfee, would sing, "Kids! . . . Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way." Says Adams, "It always tears down the house."

It apparently happened this year at Bishop Ahr High, where Wayne Konnyu played Harry -- but the Rising Star judges who nominated him instead opted to give the prize to his castmate Michelle Nice, who played Mae. And, in an era where you read in the news that students are assaulting teachers, here were kids hurling something else to a teacher -- applause and cheers. It of course happened too when Walter A. Webster won for Outstanding Direction by a Teacher for Sacred Heart's Carousel. Usually, of course, in school, teachers and students are on opposite sides of desks, each with their own agendas, sometimes even seeming like enemies. But here was a rare example of where educators and educatees worked together, all pulling for the same thing -- a great show. How often does that happen?

The Rising Stars honors related arts, too. Not just costumes (Princeton Day School won for Drood) sets and lighting (both went to Northern Valley's West Side Story), but also Outstanding Hair and Makeup Design (Princeton Day School's Drood) and Outstanding Graphic Design for Posters, T-shirts, Hats, and Merchandise (Union City's Mack & Mabel). Think about it -- some people in Union City, NJ this year were walking around town in Mack & Mabel T-shirts and hats. I WILL send roses to this troupe.

When the Rising Star was bestowed on Outstanding Lobby Display (Dunellen High's The Wiz), the person accepting noted that a cast and crew of 80 as well as 20 parents and other students worked on making an Emerald City and a Yellow Brick Road. Great! How often do you hear of kids and their folks working together towards a common goal -- and months later being applauded and awarded? Thank you, Paper Mill.

The category with the most nominees was Outstanding Technical Achievement by a Student, in which any teacher could nominate a worthy candidate. No fewer than 15 instructors from as many schools took the time to trumpet the achievements of their kids. The winner, Christopher Andraka, actually did the lighting design -- he didn't assist, he DID it -- for Cherry Hill's Cabaret. Andraka will enjoy displaying his trophy at his dorm at the University of North Carolina, where he's been accepted into the lighting design program.

Students were also cited for Outstanding Orchestra (Ridgewood High's Secret Garden), while a teacher won Outstanding Musical Direction (Westfield's Cabaret conductor Jim Beil). There were awards for Outstanding Chorus (Piscataway High's Crazy for You), not to be confused with Outstanding Ensemble (Westfield's Kit Kat Girls), or Outstanding Ensemble Member (Doug MacKrell's Arvide in Fair Lawn High's Guys and Dolls.) No question: Speidel and Paper Mill don't want to leave anyone out.

. Interspersed with these were selections from the other four nominated musicals: Northern Valley's West Side Story offered Krupke. Sacret Heart's Carousel did June Is Bustin' Out. Clearview Regional's Secret Garden showed The House upon the Hill. Bishop Ahr's Bye Bye Birdie did The Telephone Hour.

All were imaginatively done, yes, but there was even a better dynamic going on here. These shows, remember, closed long ago, and were seemingly gone forever. Speidel and Paper Mill were giving the kids a chance to revive and savor one more shining moment. That's a priceless gift.

Then came the blue-chip awards. No less than Eddie Bracken, on his night off from playing the innocent would-be-roue in No, No, Nanette, came on to give out the Outstanding Supporting Performer prizes. When he came on, the kids immediately jumped up to give him a standing ovation. All right, they probably knew him from Home Alone 2 rather than from his stint in Shinbone Alley, but there was still some deep respect for an ol' pro, and that's what really counted.

"I'm happy to welcome you into the business," Bracken told the kids, before taking time out to celebrate Joe Marchese. He's a student director from Clark High who raised $3,000 from flea markets to do his own production of They're Playing Our Song. Alas, he wasn't able to be included in the Rising Stars because on the date the judges were to come, he suddenly lost his musical director, which set back his production schedule. Johanson too would later applaud Marchese, and mentioned that what the judges did see on that chaotic day was enough for him to offer the kid an internship at Paper Mill this summer. (Attention American Theatre Critics Association: Remember this, as well as Paper Mill's other many achievements, when recommending your choice for the next year's Best Regional Theatre Tony Award.)

Outstanding Supporting Actor went to Chris Gorton for his Riff in Northern Valley's West Side Story. He then gave my favorite acceptance speech of the night when he began, "And my mother wants me to play basketball!"

But what happened during the Outstanding Supporting Actress really got to me. For as Bracken was announcing the nominees and reached "Tara Hogan, as Irene Molloy in Toms River South's Hello, Dolly," there was an eruption from three adult women sitting near me.

"Your kid?" I asked.

"No," said one. "We're judges."

"We didn't even see this girl on stage," said the second. "But the school sent us a videotape, and even watching her in that, her performance really came through."

"She made us cry," said the third. The other two nodded in agreement.

And while I was trying to remember if ANY Irene Molloy has ever made me shed a tear during a third of a century of seeing Dollies, Bracken, who'd by now finished naming the other nominees and opening the envelope, announced, "Tara Hogan, Irene Molloy in Toms River's Hello, Dolly!" These three women -- none of them relatives or friends, remember -- started jumping up and down and screaming with glee and victory, as if their horse had won the Derby. This Tara Hogan must really be something.

Alas, Ms. Hogan didn't get to perform because her musical wasn't nominated. (The Rising Stars apparently prepare kids for the Tonys.) But Speidel and Company did allow us the chance to see and hear all seven Outstanding Leading Actors and Actresses by letting them one of their songs in a brace of medleys.

So we heard Meridoc Burkhardt's I Wont Send Roses, Brian Maslow's Me and My Girl, Charlie Irwin's If You Could See Her, Joe Lattanzi's I've Never Been in Love Before, Christian Eastburn's I Heard Someone Crying, Dale Santangelo's good chunk of the Soliloquy, before Jared Gertner started Brotherhood of Man, which everyone joined by song's end.

Then came Nicole Baguer's Blow, Gabriel, Blow, Sharon A. Farrell's English Teacher, Heather Heineman's No Man Left for Me, Meghann Dreyfuss's Simple Joys of Maidenhood, Caroline Wilmer's gender-bending Wonderful Day Like Today, Jamie Scalese's Before the Parade Passes By, and Nicole Martone's Time Heals Everything.

To bestow their prizes, Speidel shrewdly invited last year's Rising Star winners, Laura Benante (Dolly at Kinnelon High) and Josh Sigal (Tevye at Westfield). Eastburn took Best Actor for his Archibald, then promptly thanked his girlfriend first, and his mother second.

Best Actress? Martone's Mabel, gave a skillfully and thoroughly composed acceptance speech. The irony is the same could not be said for Best Choreography winner, the adult Michael Scannelli, who, in winning for his My One and Only dances at Morristown High, gave an oration that rivaled in length Greer Garson's half-hour Mrs. Miniver acceptance speech in 1943. "It took me 27 years to win anything," Scannelli said en route to his garrulous acceptance. But he rather redeemed himself when he said, "I'd like to thank Morristown for realizing that the arts don't have to be the first thing cut from a budget."

Which brings us to Paper Mill's generosity. Not only did the Playhouse spring for the awards, but they also bestowed three $1,000 scholarships, based on essays kids wrote on what high school drama meant to them. The winners were Sparta's Constance Dubinski, Holy Family's Deanna Destito, and the aforementioned Brian Maslow, who said that "Although I didn't win the Rising Star Award, I got something even better -- money."

Okay. Here was the big prize for Outstanding Overall Production. Del Rossi and Johanson reminded us of the nominees: Bishop Ahr High for Bye Bye Birdie, Clearview Regional High for The Secret Garden, Northern Valley High for West Side Story, Sacred Heart High for Carousel, and Westfield High for Cabaret. And the winner is. . .

"Northern Valley High," said Del Rossi, as the kids in rows AA-G right stood up, screamed and cried. Some hugged each other tightly, not moving, just hugging tight. We did it. We won. There was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Some of these kids, of course, will go on to win other awards. Some could snare Theatre Worlds, Obies, Outer Critics Circles, Drama Desks, and Tonys. Others might become Druggists of the Year. Others will, of course, never win another trophy. But they did have this one night in the spotlight. And they and we have Susan Speidel, Robert Johanson and Angelo Del Rossi to thank for that. What's also terrific is that, with these tangible Rising Stars to shoot for, high school production and acting standards will rise.

When all was said and done, all I could think of, wow, I wish they had these when I was acting in high school. Oh, not that I would have won anything. I didn't have any talent. Why do you think I had to become a critic?

Peter Filichia is the New Jersey theater critic for the Star-Ledger
You can e-mail him at Pfilichia@aol.com