By Stephanie Zajac
Greater Morristown’s best amateur talent will be getting the red carpet treatment at next month’s Morristown’s Got Talent- Hollywood Edition!
“By adding some glitz and glamor and really making them feel like the stars that they are, I think it will really make for a great show,” said Master of Ceremonies Tara Bernie, a senior producer for NBC’s Access Hollywood and Access Hollywood Live and a Morristown resident.
More than 70 acts auditioned, but only 16 made the cut for the seventh annual competition, scheduled for Feb. 26, 2014, at the Mayo Performing Arts Center.
“We have a lot of variety… and things people just haven’t seen before,” said Kim Pistner, chairperson of MGT. “It’s even better than we thought it would be.”
The performers hail from Morristown, Morris Plains, and Morris Township. Tickets go on sale on Jan. 27; last year’s show pulled in $50,000 and the Morris Education Foundation aims to top that mark.
“We raise money for innovative programs in our schools. We do everything we can to enrich the experience of students in our district,” said Molly Servais, head of the Foundation.
The performers are competing for a top prize of $1,000. The judges should have their hands full.
“It’s anybody’s game out there in February,” said Tara.
What will it take for Morristown’s Got Talent! contestants to become pros?
“It takes a lot of passion, first of all, and a lot of talent, obviously,” said Tara, a former New Jersey Nets dancer and mother of two girls in the school district. “But you need to have that tenacity, that drive to push yourself, and not to be afraid of failure.”
We met the finalists at a dress rehearsal at Morristown High School, and they all seemed pretty confident. Here they are:
Photos by Scott Schlosser and Kevin Coughlin. Please click icon below for captions.
Nailah Taylor and Rexx Hill met six years ago at the Calvary Baptist Church in Morristown, and have been performing together almost ever since. Nailah has been singing since she was a little girl; while studying at McKinley College, she placed second in two national competitions. Rexx and his four brothers all played musical instruments, and they joked about being “like the Jackson 5.” They started coming out for Morristown’s Got Talent in 2009 and since then have not only grown in talent, but in their relationship as well. The two now are dating and have formed a great bond musically.
Alexandra Butman, 11 (soon to be 12!), is a dancer from Morris Plains with confidence beyond her years. She followed in her mom’s footsteps at age 5 when she decided to start rhythmic gymnastics and dance classes. Her mother is her coach for the show, but they only meet twice a week due to Alexandra’s busy schedule. She described working with her mom as “really nice, because she pays a lot of attention to you. But it’s sometimes a little nerve-wracking because she’s your mom and you want to show her your best, but sometimes you just can’t because you’re still working on things.” What sets Alexandra apart from other dancers? “Flexibility,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I have more flexibility than most other people. Also, I have passion, and I love to dance!” If she wins the talent show, she plans to save the prize money for college–hopefully, Columbia University. “I’ve heard it’s a pretty good school!”
Daniel Baldan, originally from Madison, taught himself to play guitar when he moved to California for eight years. Returning to Morris Township, he made his debut at the open mic night at Anthony’s Pizzeria near the Morristown Green. Dan decided to try out for the talent show when Debbie Sontupe, marketing chair for MGT, approached him and his friends at a pizzeria performance. “Debbie said, ‘You guys should try out,’ so I did.” Daniel will be celebrating his birthday the day before the show.
Band of Misfits has plenty of talent…it simply lacked a name. A coffeehouse emcee supplied the missing piece. Singer Sara Dalpe and fellow Misfits Jordan Rabinowitz (upright bass) and Valerie Bai (violin) will perform Nina Simone’s Feeling Good. Which, they chimed in unison, is how they feel on stage. Sara tried out last year in an acoustic duo; she thinks an Adele song was a bad choice in a year when everyone else had the same idea. Feeling Good is not as well known, she suspects. Which means the Misfits…might stand out.
Kathleen and Anne Merritt are a sister team from Morristown making their debut as a performing duo. Kathleen, 15, is a freshman at Morristown High School. A pianist since the second grade, she can’t remember not wanting to play an instrument. Anne, 11, said her parents have told her that she sang before she could even talk. With a laugh, she said you can find her “singing in the chorus” around the house. “In the shower,” too, her sister added. “Sometimes we get on each other’s nerves, as all sisters do,” Kathleen acknowledged. “But overall, we get along pretty well. It’s more about a way we have fun together.” Anne said she will appreciate having her big sister on stage for support, “because sometimes I get really nervous.” They plan to perform Price Tag by Jessie J. The song’s message, according to Anne: “You don’t need to be rich to be happy.” Along those lines, she has a plan if they win the prize money. “Give a little, spend a little, save a little,” she said.
The Marimba Four consists of four percussive pals. Stephen Ferm and Emily Carvalho are seniors at Morristown High School. They met Neil McNulty, from Randolph, and Reed Puleo, of Mendham, through various bands and competitions outside of school. They participated in regional and state competitions prior to becoming the Marimba Four. Each member has spent months learning his or her part, but they only got their act together, as an ensemble, a couple of days before the audition.
With a father in the Air Force, Lindsay Roby, 25, has spent her whole life traveling, and still is fairly new to the Morristown area. One constant has been singing: She started when she was 12. Lindsay heard about MGT when someone walked into Strawberry Fields Self-Serve Frozen Yogurt, where she works, to hang up a flyer. “The person asked, ‘Does anyone here have talent?’” Without missing a beat, Lindsay shot back: “Oh, well I do!” She won a 2005 competition singing an Alicia Keys song, and has chosen to sing another song by the artist, If I Ain’t Got You.
Lindsay advises singers to reward themselves with frozen yogurt after they perform–dairy products can be tricky for the vocal cords. If you stop by Strawberry Fields before it opens in the morning, you might catch Lindsay and her sister warming up. Why does Lindsay love singing? “It makes my soul happy.”
At age 14, Hugh Grennan, already is a veteran of MGT. Three years ago he competed as a member of an Irish dance troupe. That experience “will help me to prepare, because I know what it’s like to practice, and to be on that stage,” he said. “I know that I should practice hard, and make sure it’s perfect, no matter what.” Only this time, he’ll be practicing on the piano. The eighth-grader at Frelinghuysen Middle School been playing since he was in kindergarten, and singing since the second grade. He will perform a Billy Joel medley, inspired by his music teacher, Ken Levinsky. When Hugh is performing, “there is a little bit of nervousness, but it’s just so much fun,” he said. “It’s relaxing. It’s nice.”
The Moderately Bright Four, an a cappella group together for 10 years, performs everywhere and anywhere in Morris County, according to members Roberta Foster, Audrey Wells, Jeffrey Wells and Steven Kohn. The group came together at a parent-teacher conference between Roberta and Audrey. Audrey noticed a flyer on Roberta’s desk and discovered that Roberta was an alto. Audrey said the group needed an alto to be complete, so “it was a match made in heaven.”
Riley Amalfitano of Florham Park is a freshman at Villa Walsh Academy in Morris Township. Riley said her mother used to tell her stories that she would try to hum, and she would sing along to Elmo’s World before she could talk. For Morristown’s Got Talent, she’ll be singing Think of Me from Phantom of the Opera. When she learned she was a finalist, it took awhile to grasp the news. “I was trying to soak it in…I was basically running around the house, telling everyone!” she said.
Morristown High School junior Uma Kantheti, 16, has been practicing Indian dancing for 11 years. Her dance style is called “Bharatanatyam.” She wears a colorful, traditional costume, and dances with bells to help her keep on beat. Uma described the music as more complicated than western music, with lots of intricate rhythms. “When I’m in dance, I’m kind of transformed into another world. It helps me keep back with my Indian roots. It’s just a fun hobby that I like to do,” she said. Through her school track team, Uma met Katherine Merwin, co-winner of last year’s talent show, and Katherine’s performance inspired her to try out, she said.
Do The Pizza Shop Boys deliver? Yes they do, every Tuesday at Anthony’s Pizza, where they started an open mic night. That’s where they were “discovered” by members of the MGT committee, who stopped in for a slice. The trio–shop owner Rudy Ioppolo, his employee Steve DePasque and Steve’s dad Jim DePasque–have baked a spicy version of Young Girl, a 1968 hit by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. “It’s a song with the works,” said Rudy. Look for punchy guitar, close harmonies, and a dash of oregano. Kind of like a great pizza. “We have all the right elements,” Rudy said.
Nicole Williams may have an unfair advantage when she steps up to the microphone. God is on her side. Or at least, one of his emissaries. (Her father is the pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church.) But the Morristown High School freshman is magnanimous about it. “I believe God is with everyone, even if they don’t believe it,” said Nicole, who has been singing in church choirs for most of her life. She grew up in Capetown, South Africa, where her father served as a missionary. After moving to Morristown, she tried out for the talent show with a friend a couple of years ago, but wasn’t quite ready. Since then she’s been singing more solos in church, building confidence. Singing is perfect for “letting go of your emotions,” she said. Any advice from on high this time around? “Just be strong and don’t be nervous,” she said, quoting her dad. Her song choice? Hallelujah, of course. “It tells us that even when we’re going through struggles, we have to fight through them and always praise God, because he’ll help us get through it.”
We want to be a fly on the wall backstage if the Morris Music Men win. Specifically, when they try to carve the check 14 ways! This overgrown barbershop quartet is the local chapter of the 40-year-old Barbershop Harmony Society, the largest male singing society in the country. Most of the Music Men are self-taught, from CDs. The group sings at many events around Greater Morristown–including last Independence Day on the Green–and the gents even provide a Valentine-singing service for that holiday. If you’re keeping score at home, the Music Men are: Nate Barrett, Andy DiSessa, Ken Hoffman, Paul Freeland, Don Leaman, Don Macgowan, Jon Maizel, George Olson, Steve Richvalsky,Terry Scullin, Dave Sipple,Wayne Verderber, Charley Wurster and Mike Yodice.
Joe Van Loon and Christopher Del Sordi said making the final cut already feels like a triumph, after a rough year for them both. Joe, 20, attends County College of Morris and met Christopher, 19, when they were students at Morristown High School. Both have come to their music by interesting paths. Joe began as a dancer before switching to singing four years ago. Christopher was determined to learn guitar at age 12, when an older brother refused to let let him play his guitar. Christopher spent an entire day on the Seaside boardwalk playing one of the games until he won a guitar as a prize. He’s been playing ever since.
Gabrielle Visser Trumbull comes from a family of female vocalists. A professional singer for many years, she has come to Morristown’s Got Talent just because… she wanted to do something for herself. Gabrielle has always loved performing. “I’m extremely passionate. This is the joy of my life, getting to perform. I can’t imagine my life without it. I bring the heart.”
Kevin Coughlin and Scott Schlosser contributed to this report.