By Sarah Yamashita, Max Felsenstein and Kevin Coughlin
A contortionist, a poet and a social worker walk into a theater. What do you get?
The 11th annual Morristown Onstage contest, that’s what!
Allison Chong, Ally Are and Shayna Atkinson will compete with a dozen other acts for fame and fortune at the Mayo Performing Arts Center on Feb. 28, 2018. Organizers aim to top last year’s record $126,000 raised for Morris School District programs.
“The energy is incredible, and the fact we can have a great show and raise a lot of money for our schools, it’s just a win for everyone. It’s a joy, really,” Chairperson Molly Servais said on Saturday, when 15 finalists were introduced at Morristown High School.
Backstories abound. A past winner looks to repeat. Brothers are competing together. A mother and daughter, separately. One singer is here after four tries; another seeks the winning formula after several appearances.
But the overarching theme is a celebration of education and its impact on Greater Morristown, said Debbie Sontupe, executive director of the nonprofit Morris Educational Foundation.
“It’s just about a community coming together to support our talented friends and neighbors and classmates and colleagues…what a great, vibrant community we have. And for us to put Morristown onstage is great icing on the cake,” said Sontupe.
Proceeds –more than $500,000 so far–support cultural programs and equal opportunities for all District students, Sontupe said.
Tara Bernie, an Emmy-nominated former producer of NBC’s Access Hollywood, returns as emcee. A panel of judges will award $1,000 prizes to the best over- and under-18 act. One audience favorite will go home with $500; the “most promising” performer pockets $250.
More than 55 amateur acts auditioned. Contestants must live, work or study in Morristown, Morris Township or Morris Plains. Morristown High School alumni also are eligible.
Tickets go on sale in late January. Servais promises a “big surprise…that will be a fun, fun addition” to the show. Let’s meet the finalists:
Slideshow photos by Jeff Sovelove, Sarah Yamashita and Kevin Coughlin
Zap the Moles:
Van Halen. Metallica. Aerosmith. You wouldn’t expect four freshmen and an 8th grader to like these old bands, but they idolize them. Zap the Moles is Shaun Sapp, Dominic Mantobianca, Katelyn Nagy and Jonny Smith: Four best friends from Morristown.
“We’re a multicultural, diverse band and we like all genres of music. We’re very open to rock, metal, jazz, R&B, all that good stuff,” Sapp said.
The band’s roots are older than its members. “Our parents weren’t in a band together, but my dad was a backup singer,” said Nagy. Added Smith: “My dad was a guitarist in a very unsuccessful band.”
Nagy continued the story. “Jonny and I have been friends for a really long time. Our dads really hit it off and they became friends, dragging us into it. I went to kindergarten with Shaun and while I was friends with Jonny he introduced me to Dom. So we’ve all known each other for 10 years.”
“We’re like family, basically,” Sapp said.
Zap the Moles will perform Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes. While the band is new to Morristown Onstage, its members are far from inexperienced. Sapp hails from a musical family and participated in the Frelinghuysen Middle School talent show in 7th and 8th grades, winning the first time; Nagy won in 8th grade.
Mantobianca has played in other bands, but “this one is more fun because I’m closer with these guys.” Morristown Onstage will test them in a big way, as a unit, Smith said. “Before this, we’ve played an open mic, and that’s it.”
They’re competing, Sapp said, “because we want to push ourselves as a group and as individuals in the music world.” –S.Y.
If Shayna Atkinson wins Morristown Onstage, she won’t think twice about what to do with her winnings.
“I’d donate the money back to the Market Street Mission,” said the Berkeley Heights resident, who works at the Morristown mission helping shelter those in need.
Atkinson will perform Can’t Help Loving That Man, from the musical Showboat. It reunites her with a dear friend from her days at the Stevens Institute of Technology, pianist Jim Moran.
“When I was there I sang with a group and he was our accompanist and arranged music for the group. I actually sang that song with him about 20 years ago on stage,” Atkinson said.
Although this is her first appearance in Morristown Onstage, she is no stranger to talent competitions. Her quartet has won a third place prize in Region 19 of the Sweet Adelines. –M.F.
Nina & The Boyz:
Don’t get her wrong. Nina Rangel loves teaching preschoolers in Newark and running the kids choir at St. Virgil’s in Morris Plains.
“But I got tired of singing Wheels on the Bus. I wanted to do something different for myself,” said the 26-year-old Morristown High School graduate (’09). That something turned out to be Morristown Onstage.
Rangel has competed before–twice as pianist for her sister Julia (now studying in England) and again on her own. For 2018, she has recruited a Boyz band from the faculty of her former teaching gig, Morristown’s Original Music School.
Rangel’s vocals, which have a smooth Norah Jones quality, will be backed by Peter Favilla, 24, on piano; Dylan Jacobus, 27, on bass; Connor Larkin, 27, on guitar; Sean Farrelly, 28, on drums, and MHS alum Sean Horan, 27, on sax. They’ll perform Put Your Records On by Corinne Bailey Rae.
“It makes you want to move, want to sing, want to dance,” said Favilla.
Even though she faces dozens of squirmy preschoolers every day, and despite handling the pressures of Morristown Onstage before, Rangel expects she’ll be nervous on Feb. 28 at the packed Mayo Performing Arts Center. Her Boyz aren’t worried.
“Sometimes it’s worse when there’s just one person in the room,” said Farrelly. Added Larkin: “She’s got a great voice. That’s all you need.”
And if this six-piece ensemble shares some prize money, then what?
“We’ll all go to McDonald’s or something,” volunteered Jacobus. — KC
We Need Love with Ally Are
Rather than moving to the beat of a song, this young team from Dance Innovations moves to Ally Are’s words.
“We actually don’t have any music whatsoever, there’s no soundtrack or anything,” said dancer Isabella Racioppi. The act is named for Are’s poem, We Need Love.
Are and Racioppi are Morristown Onstage veterans. Are won in 2015 as a solo poet; Racioppi was a solo dancer last year.
“It’s such a great environment, especially backstage, and everyone is so supportive. It’s just something Ally and I really wanted to come back to,” Racioppi said.
Are said the seed was planted when she met Dance Innovations choreographer Susan McCutcheon Coutts after the 2015 talent show.
“It’s because of being here before that I’m back here, so it’s like a full circle,” Are said.
“Ally has really stepped it up as a creative force; she has done a bunch of shows for us at the Shakespeare Theatre in Madison, Drew University, and the Martha Graham studio in New York City,” said Coutts.
Are wrote We Need Love for Dance Innovations “because of the current climate of the world,” she said.
“I feel like love is something that’s lacking. It’s such a short work, but it’s so powerful. It’s a confession about the world we’re in and how ugly it can be, but it’s also a call to action. What are you going to do to make sure love is shown in your neighborhood? Hopefully it starts a chain reaction, so everyone will want to incorporate love into their lives.”
If they win, Are and Dance Innovations plan to spread the love by donating their prize money to the Dance Innovations Performance Foundation, for art scholarships to students with special needs. — S.Y.
Don’t tell CJ Ryan, but his mom listens to him shower.
“Usually he uses our shower … so when I know he’s taking a shower in our room, I sneak up to the room just to listen to him sing,” said Juliette Ryan.
She is astonished — and even perplexed– by the 12-year-old’s vocal ability.
“No one in my family can sing, and I’ve never taken a singing lesson besides for being in the chorus,” said CJ, who will perform Tell Me You Love Me by Demi Lovato.
CJ said his sisters– twins Devon and Taylor, 13, and Kiara, 26–don’t sing at all, and he has no clue where his talent comes from. Singing just comes easy.
The family started taking notice when the 7th grader competed in the Frelinghuysen Middle School talent show.
“We didn’t know how good he was until he tried out for the FMS talent show last year and didn’t want to tell us, he was shy about it and, it was just ‘Woah, oh my goodness,’ we had no idea,” said his mom.
“We took it kind of lightly because that’s how he is, kind of low key.”
So low key, in fact, that he only decided to audition for Morristown Onstage at the very last minute. –M.F.
The pressure began the instant the Morristown Onstage poster went up at Morristown’s Committed Pig restaurant.
“My co-workers insisted I try out,” said Liv Zito, 19. She did, and made the cut with her interpretation of Pink’s Glitter in the Air.
Family members think it shows off her range, and they should know. They’ve heard her singing “basically since I could talk,” said Zito, who is studying music production at the County College of Morris with an eye toward the Berklee College of Music and a career in children’s music therapy.
Crowds and competition don’t seem to faze her. At 16, she advanced to the first round of The Voice. And she has belted out God Bless America before 3,500 people at a charity 5K race.
“I feel the larger the audience, the easier it is–because I can’t see individual faces,” said Zito, whose take on music is not complicated.
“It makes me feel good,” she explained. That’s how she plans to make the audience feel at Morristown Onstage.
And if the judges are on the fence, well, Zito has a secret weapon. “I’m a really good baker,” she said. Her specialty? “Chocolate chip cookies.” –KC
The Mau Brothers
Brothers don’t always co-exist peacefully. But Franklin and Austin Mau, ages 12 and 10, live in perfect harmony.
On the piano, at least.
“Most brothers don’t get along, and we get along sort of well. Our parents motivate us because they encourage us to keep on going, to never give up, and to persevere,” said Franklin.
The formula appears to work for this duo, already tested in competition.
“For the past four years, we’ve been to Carnegie Hall… a little scary. So this is more of a walk in the park,” said Franklin, who attends the Peck School in Morristown with his brother. They live in Montville.
At Morristown Onstage, the brothers will give a four-handed rendition of Hungarian Dance No. 5 by Brahms.
Why did they set their sights on this show?
“Our music teacher recommended this to us for experience so we decided to try out, and we made it,” Franklin said. “It feels good performing in front of family, that we’re sharing our music to different people in the world.”
If they win, Austin said they’re going to “give the money back to the community, to the food pantry.”
Of course, he added, “we’ll keep some of it.” –S.Y.
They are 23-year-old Morristown nannies who call themselves Playful Banter, for a reason.
“It’s the essence of who we are because most of the time we’re not taking anything seriously,” said Kimberly Sanchez, who teamed with Alexis von Aulock thanks to mutual friends and shared musical passions.
They will perform a cajon-and-guitar mashup of Michael Jackson’s Beat It and the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams.
“It’s something we’ve done a couple times and there’s always a moment where it just clicks and it’s completely unconventional because our mashups are covers of other songs, but the mashup is completely original,” said von Aulock.
Although the friends have jammed together several times, Playful Banter makes its debut at Morristown Onstage.
“I realized one day, I’m never going to be able to play out if I don’t start playing out,” von Aulock said. “I was waiting to get Instagram-famous.”
Just in case, the duo has created an Instagram page (@playfulbantermusic).
“I’ve come to learn that if you adore something, you take care of it and you cherish it, you show others that you have a passion for it. Then you’re showing yourself that you care about yourself, and this is the best way that I know how to do that for me and for Playful Banter,” Sanchez said. –M.F.
Jackie and Peter:
Whoever penned the proverb, “If at first you don’t succeed…” must have had Jackie Rhoades in mind.
Ever since the 5th grade, she’s been trying to make it into Morristown Onstage. The fourth time was the charm.
“I thought, I haven’t made it yet. I just need to!” said the 17-year-old, who shuttles between Morristown High School and the Morris County School of Technology, where she is studying cosmetology.
What finally made the difference, Rhoades thinks, is her material. She co-wrote Other Than Blue with Anthony Vitale, her instructor at the Original Music School.
“It’s an original song with a lot of meaning for me,” Rhoades said. “It’s about a very close friend who passed away.”
Her classically trained pianist, Peter Favilla, performs with talented people across the country. Rhoades is special, he said.
“She has a very real message and creates very real art, and it speaks,” said Favilla, 24. The Randolph resident will be busy at Morristown Onstage: He also is competing in the adult division, with Nina & The Boyz.
Playing before 1,300 people at the Mayo Performing Arts Center may sound daunting, but Favilla had an epiphany before a big concert in Washington DC.
“You either choose to be nervous, or not to be. Music is more important. I choose music.” –KC
June Soriano packs a big voice into a small package.
“People think I’m 18 years old. And I’m 23. Usually when I go onstage, people won’t think I have that voice. People are always surprised by that,” said the Bayonne resident, who is a bank teller for Wells Fargo in Morristown.
Singing and performing have been part of Soriano’s life since she was 7, and she hasn’t lost touch with her passions.
In high school, she competed in Florida and Washington DC, winning third place for vocals in D.C. Morristown Onstage is an opportunity “to go back to performing, to just keep it in me.”
Soriano will sing All I Ask by Adele. It’s not the story of a broken romance that grabbed her. Rather, she said, it’s “the tone, the mood, the sound of it.”
In addition to her bank job, Soriano is studying computer science at Union County College. But family and friends motivate her to keep performing.
“They’re always the ones who tell me, ‘Oh, why don’t you go back to singing? Why don’t you go to New York and do gigs there?’
Soriano listens. –S.Y.
Morristown would be a better place with more original music.
That’s the opinion of Sideslam, a band that will practice what it preaches by performing Downtown Air, a song composed by member Carter Olcott.
“I was in New York City, riding the subway one night and saw this couple sitting across from me and they were sharing an earbud, listening to music, and one was leaning on the other’s shoulder, eyes closed, enjoying each other, bopping their heads to the music,” recounted Olcott, 42.
“It was an interesting moment for me, and it went from there.”
Olcott and longtime friend Marc Grossman, 52, recently were joined by Joel Stearns, 45.
The local scene has plenty of talented musicians; if they played more original compositions, it would make Morristown “a much more musical place to live in,” Olcott said.
If Sideslam wins the prize money, the band probably will follow a time-honored musical tradition.
“We’d go out with a bunch of our friends and just have a party,” Olcott said. “There’s a 10 percent rule in our industry and that is 10 percent of your winnings goes to the bar. I think we might have to up that.” —M.F.
Most people try to avoid tying themselves up in knots.
Allison Chong has made it an art form.
The 13-year-old dancer from Morris Township will perform a contortion number to Frozen by Madonna.
“This particular dance I started learning mid-October-ish. I really like performing it. I most enjoy acro numbers like this one,” said Chong, who has been dancing competitively since kindergarten.
She just started taking classes, and fell in love with dancing. With a laugh, Chong said she “competes at a lot of places” and cannot recall her biggest audience.
However, she won the Frelinghuysen Middle School talent show. So Morristown Onstage loomed as the next logical challenge.
Chong shed most of her nerves years ago; mostly she feels excitement about being a finalist.
“I’m pretty much used to performing by now,” she said. “My parents are really supportive and they always encourage me to keep practicing. If I mess up onstage, they’ll tell me I did good.” S.Y.
Spare Tire Band
The Spare Tire Band is rolling without any spare tires.
Glen Mulligan, Christopher Smith and Billy Mutchler usually play in a five-piece group.
But they are a trio for Morristown Onstage, where they will perform Scarlet Begonias by The Grateful Dead.
“We’re trying to have fun. It’s just fun, it really is. We have a lot of fun playing and we’re in the community and we were honored to be asked to even just come and audition. It’s just another part of the experience for us,” said Mutchler, a painter and carpenter.
Mulligan is a financial adviser and Smith works for Merck Animal Health. Although it’s only three of them competing for glory, they will be channeling a larger musical community.
“We’re just three of a network of 30 people,” Mulligan said. –M.F.
Juliette Trumbull, 13, sees lots of Broadway musicals and meets many of the performers.
Her dream is to be one of them.
“Every time I see a new show it motivates me more: I want to do that show when I’m older, I want to play that part,” she said.
For Morristown Onstage, Trumbull found role models even closer to home. Her mother, Gabrielle Trumbull, sang in the 2014 show as a finalist.
“She inspired me, and I know a few people who’ve competed, so I figured, why not try out?” said Juliette, who will sing How Far I’ll Go from Moana.
“I saw the movie Moana a few days after it came out. I love musical theater. One of my acting coaches said, ‘You sound a lot like Auli’i Cravalho,’ who sings the song, and I’m like, Really?”
Juliette said she connects with the song’s story, as Moana struggles with her desire to stay on the island as chief, and her dream of leaving to explore the ocean.
More than anything, Juliette is excited about Morristown ONSTAGE because she simply loves to perform.
“I like the adrenaline that you always feel when you’re onstage. You’re nervous before, but you always feel satisfied after your performance.” –S.Y.
It’s no misprint. Two Trumbulls are competing this year.
And even though Gabrielle Trumbull has been here before, in 2014, she’s not above taking a few pointers from her daughter Juliette, who is new to Morristown Onstage.
“We rehearse together in the sense that I try to give her advice. She will listen somewhat, but she’ll do her own thing no matter what I say.
“She’ll sometimes give me advice and I’ll listen to her, because she always gives the truth,” said Gabrielle, who “retired” from professional performing seven years ago.
Gabrielle sang Someone Like You from Jekyll & Hyde at her prior Morristown Onstage appearance. This time she’s singing another Broadway song: You’ll Never Walk Alone from Carousel.
The last go-round was so positive, she wanted to come back.
“It was invigorating, overwhelming in a good way. It’s a very supportive audience regardless of what you do out there. I love to perform, that’s all it is about for me. To go out there and share what I love doing,” said Gabrielle.
A performer for most of her life, she now works as an office manager in Harding. Gabrielle said she is a single mom who is very close to her teenaged daughter, and would love to duet with her.
“For the last couple years, Juliette’s wanted to compete and I always asked if we could do something together.
“She wanted to do something by herself— not because I was embarrassing her, but because she’s good enough to do it by herself. She grew up backstage. She is a confident, independent 13-year-old.”
You could say Gabrielle is doubly excited about Morristown Onstage.
“It’s another opportunity for us to share something we both love to do,” said the proud mother.–S.Y.
And if any of the finalists can’t make it, Frank Saia of the organizing committee is ready…
Sarah Yamashita, a senior at the Morristown Beard School, will attend Smith College in the fall. Max Felsenstein is a communications major at Drew University (’20) and center fielder on the baseball team.