Poetry in motion dazzled judges at the 11th edition of Morristown Onstage, a fundraising juggernaut of song and dance featuring 15 amateur acts at the Mayo Performing Arts Center on Wednesday.
Poet Ally Are, a 2015 winner, scored this time by reciting We Need Love, an original plea for these turbulent times, set to an interpretive dance piece by members of Dance Innovations in Chatham. They shared the $1,000 18-and-under prize.
“I’m still in shock,” Are said. “I know when we get together we make magic, but when we heard our names it was like, when are they going to announce the winners?”
Slideshow photos by Jeff Sovelove and Kevin Coughlin
“The emotion came naturally to us,” said dancer Isabella Racioppi of Morristown. The hard part was pairing moves to words; dancers are accustomed to musical beats, she said.
A large and enthusiastic crowd greeted the performers inside the 1,300-seat theater, where longtime TV producer Tara Bernie hosted for her fifth year. Highlights included a rip-roaring scene from Morristown High School’s upcoming production of Anything Goes.
Organizers from the Morris Educational Foundation were hopeful Morristown Onstage proceeds will top last year’s record of $126,000 raised for programs in the Morris School District.
CHOCOLATE, CARDBOARD AND AN IVORY HERO
Wednesday’s $1,000 adult prize went to Liv Zito, who splits her time between the County College of Morris and her job at Morristown’s Committed Pig restaurant, for her interpretation of All That Glitters by Pink.
She credited her success to hard work, advice from her dad…and candy.
“I’ve been eating a lot of chocolate because I was so stressed out,” Zito said.
Her song always makes her parents cry, she said. So she listened to her father’s suggestion.
“Every time I go out to sing, he says just sing your heart out, belt it out. He said that right before I left” for the show.
The most stunned winner probably was Frelinghuysen Middle School 7th grader CJ Ryan, who took home $500 as the audience favorite after crooning Tell Me You Love Me by Demi Lovato.
When host Tara Bernie announced his name, “I was like, wait, what? I was freaking out. I won $500. That’s amazing!” he said, dwarfed by his gigantic cardboard check.
CJ’s vocal prowess took his family by surprise over the last year, to the point where his mother started eavesdropping on his shower singing, to make sure it was for real.
“He’s the mystery of our family,” said CJ’s 13-year-old sister, Taylor Ryan.
June Soriano, a teller at Wells Fargo in Morristown, so impressed show organizers with her rendition of Adele’s All I Ask that they gave her the $250 Rossoff Rising Star award.
Soriano, who was born in the Philippines, had practiced so fervently, “I thought I was going to lose my voice.”
She plans to take Thursday off from her computer classes at Union County College, and maybe dine out with her family to celebrate. “I guess I’m going to have to treat them,” she said with a laugh.
If there was an unsung hero, it was pianist Peter Favilla. He pinch-hit at the last minute for Market Street Mission social worker Shayna Atkinson’s ailing accompanist on Can’t Help Loving That Man from Showboat.
Favilla’s fingers must be tired; he also backed singer Jackie Rhoades on a soulful original number and swung with Nina & The Boyz on Corrine Bailey Rae’s Put Your Records On.
Brothers Franklin and Austin Mau also acquitted themselves admirably on the keyboard, flying through a four-handed version of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5.
Juliette Trumbull, 13, shined on How Far I’ll Go from Moana, then cheered moments later for her mom, Gabrielle, on her soaring cover of You’ll Never Walk Alone from Carousel. That one was dedicated to the #MeToo movement.
The theater was rocked by three bands–teenage pals Zap the Moles (playing Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes) and grownup pals Side Slam (Downtown Air, an original tune) and the Spare Tire Band (Scarlet Begonias, Grateful Dead).
Two of the more adventurous numbers were Playful Banter–nannies Alexis von Aulock and Kimmy Sanchez–in a cajon-and-guitar mashup of Michael Jackson’s Beat It and the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams, and 7th grade contortion dancer Allison Chong, who tied herself in artistic knots to the beat of Madonna’s Frozen.
LIVING THE DREAM
Chong one day could dance for Cirque du Soleil, predicted Broadway producer William Franzblau. He also was impressed by the poetic talent of Ally Are, who pays the bills by working at Morristown Mini.
Franzblau said he and his fellow panelists– Eileen Bernstein, a TV producer and Morristown High alum; playwright Ali Skylar; and Brendan Fletcher, semifinalist on The Voice–were unanimous in their prize picks.
“It kind of sounds trite, but there were no losers,” said Franzblau, whose next Broadway show, Rocktopia, opens soon. “Everyone did bring their ‘A’ game. There were no throw-aways.”
For him, it boiled town to “people having a good time and living the dream on stage. It’s not always the person who sings all the right notes. It’s the people who can tell a story. That’s what entertainment is,” Franzblau said.
The evening’s theme, Strong Schools=Strong Community, was well served, according to Morris School District Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast.
“We’re all winners, because we were here tonight and part of this community,” he said.
Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty, who sees many great performers at his job at the Prudential Center, got a kick out of the Spare Tires’ Dead spin. But CJ Ryan really wowed him.
“I’ve seen Bruno Mars and all the big names. That kid’s got talent!” Dougherty said.
CJ said he expects to blow his winnings right away. “I’m not very good with money,” he confessed.
While he likes the idea of a world tour, it’s unlikely his twin sisters, Taylor and Devon, will let his head get too big.
“We’ll keep him in line!” promised Devon.
And how does CJ feel about mom pressing her ear to the bathroom door while he showers?
“Pretty intrusive!” said the budding superstar.
Correspondent Nicholas Voltaggio contributed to this report. Stay tuned for more from the show.