By Marion Filler
Greater Morristown’s top amateur talent is raring to go for the 12th annual Morristown Onstage competition.
Fifteen acts, featuring performers ranging from ages 10 to 74, went through their paces for the media on Saturday at Morristown High School, giving a hint of what’s to come on Feb. 27, 2019, at the Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC).
The show aims to top last year’s record of $143,000 raised for programs in the Morris School District, said Molly Servais, who chairs Morristown Onstage for the nonprofit Morris Educational Foundation.
Tickets go on sale on Jan. 30 at MPAC. Prepare to pounce– the 1,300-seat theater sells out fast.
Finalists were chosen from 51 acts who auditioned last month, said Melanie Smith, finalist coordinator.
Tryouts are open each year to any amateur artist who lives, works or studies in Morristown, Morris Township or Morris Plains, or is an alumnus of Morristown High School.
Contestants are vying for more than local bragging rights.
A panel of judges from the entertainment world will award $1,000 prizes to the top acts over and under age 19. The audience also will vote via text message for its favorite, a $500 award.
Additionally, a $250 Rossoff Rising Star award will go to the performer showing the most promise.
Morristown resident Tara Bernie, of the Daily Mail Live TV show, is returning as emcee.
And now–drum roll, please!–here’s a look at the roster:
***UNDER 19 DIVISION:***
At the age of 10, Thomas Becht probably has more experience performing than most of his competitors.
He attends Normandy Park school in Morris Township and has followed in the footsteps of his older sister, Danielle, who sang in the 2012 Morristown’s Got Talent show.
Older brother Bobby also is a performer.
“They were all having a good time and enjoying themselves and Tom didn’t want to be left behind, so he started singing and performing too,” said his mother, Kristen Becht.
The youngest Becht takes musical theater classes at the Mayo Performing Arts Center and also studies at the South Street Dance Studio.
He has appeared on TV shows including Mysteries at the Museum on the Travel channel, Evil Lives Here on the Discovery Channel, and On the Case with Paula Zahn.
Becht also plays on the STA Soccer Club in Morris Plains.
“He loves performing, but soccer is his thing,” said his mom. “He’s told us that when he grows up, he wants to be a professional soccer player and do Broadway as a hobby.”
Becht will sing If Only You Would Listen, from the play School of Rock.
Morristown High School junior Joseph Sace has been playing the guitar for almost four years.
He provides a video backdrop for his song, Fresh Sound of Music. While he is performs, an unseen hand sketches a portrait of Sace on the video.
By the time the hair, eyes, and facial features are complete, so is the song.
“I like music and art equally, but I think music is a better way of expression for me,” Sace said.
In addition to electric guitar, he is proficient on acoustic- and bass guitar, and piano.
“But it’s really all about the guitar,” Sace said.
The 17-year-old Lindner lives in Morristown and attends Hunterdon Preparatory School in Annandale.
“I started training in 6th grade, but before that I was in a choir and that helped a lot. Singing makes me happy, it’s a lot of fun,” she said.
Lindner also plays the piano. She enjoys chemistry, but is certain that music always will be part of her life.
She will sing Wishing You Were Here Again from Phantom of the Opera with a soaring soprano voice and a dramatic flair that makes the song memorable.
Natalie and Jillian
Natalie Rosenthal and Jillian Cain are 8th graders at Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morris Township.
Their instrument of choice is the ukulele, which they learned to play on their own.
“We got together because we both loved to sing, and when I got a ukulele, Jillian wanted one too, so she got one, and we started playing together and loved it!” explained Rosenthal.
They will perform a mashup of Hey Soul Sister by Train and I’m Yours by Jason Mraz, with a sound as lilting and refreshing as the girls themselves.
The girls never have performed anywhere together, but they sound ready.
“I wanted to try out because I’ve been coming to see the show since I was in kindergarten and I thought it would be a fun thing to try,” Rosenthal said. “I didn’t think we would actually make it, but I am happy we did.”
Bridgewater High School student Kiley Baxter, 14, attends Morristown’s South Street Dance School, where she learned about the competition.
“I’ve been taking lessons in New York City and have been singing forever,” Baxter said.
She will perform I Will Always Love You, Whitney Houston’s megahit.
Knowing the inevitable comparisons that will bring does not faze Baxter, whose choice reflects supreme self-confidence.
On Saturday, she demonstrated poise, coupled with a big voice and natural talent–no doubt, she was an obvious pick to compete in Morris Onstage.
Anna Grace Yurek and sisters Julia and Charlotte Cama, 7th graders at the Mountain Way School in Morris Plains, met in kindergarten.
They got to know each other better in the 3rd grade, during a production of Aristocats, a Stage Fun show.
“We have been friends ever since, singing by each other’s sides in other plays,” said Yurek. She and Charlotte Cama run cross country together, and the sisters are two-thirds of Cama triplets.
The Orion’s Belt trio also belongs to the Select Choir at the Morris Plains Borough School, and has performed in productions of The Jungle Book, The Lion King, and Peanuts.
The girls will perform Andra Day’s Rise Up.
“We arranged everything on our own,” said Yurek. “We meet after school to practice and see what comes together, try ideas and see what works.”
Their musical skills are self-taught. “There are no lessons or coaches involved,” said mother Laura Bellias Cama. “We weren’t even ‘allowed’ to hear them practice, so we had no idea they would pull it together so well.”
Guitarist Max Bellamente, drummer Michael Kupetz, vocalist Eddie Rencarge, and bass player Nick Schachter, four 8th graders at Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morris Township, are The Projections.
“Michael came up with the name one day in gym class and we all agreed,” said Bellamente. “The meaning of the name is that we project ourselves and our music onto an audience, and to the audience we are projections.”
They will perform A Hard Day’s Night, the title song from the Beatles’ first movie. It never fails to rock the house — even after 54 years.
Three Projections formed the group about nine months ago. Rencarge, the vocalist, came aboard in the fall. Morristown Onstage will be their first gig–but they hope it won’t be the last.
Bellamente is determined not to let high school interfere with the music.
“We are still going to stick together for as long as possible and want to perform as long as we can,” he said.
OVER 19 DIVISION:
Miller lives in Rockaway and when she is not teaching voice at the County College of Morris, she works as a waitress at Arthur’s Steak House in Morris Plains.
“I’ve been taking singing lessons since the 7th grade, but was always singing as a kid,” she said.
Miller has a Master’s degree in opera performance and says classical opera is “kind of my career track.”
Her choice of music is Nessun Dorma from Turandot, an aria made famous by Luciano Pavarotti.
It’s traditionally a male role, but “I know it will grab the heart because it is so beautiful,” said Miller.
McNiff lives in Morris Township, and has little boy who will be two years old in March.
“I’ve been singing my whole life, playing the acoustic guitar for 20 years, and performing for 12 years,” she said.
McNiff took a pause from professional fundraising activities to raise her son, and entertains at restaurants in the area. “I like to adapt songs to my own vocal range and I like doing songs that are written and performed by men because I can do them in a range above.”
She will perform I Got a Woman, immortalized by Ray Charles. “The lyrics are about women’s roles in the 1950s, and I get a kick out of being a woman and playing that song,” McNiff explained.
Not only does Alexandria Lefkovits look like Billie Holiday, but she has chosen to sing God Bless the Child, written by Holiday and Arthur Herzog in 1939.
The poignant, nuanced lyrics are the perfect fit for Alexandria, who teaches English to 6th graders at Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morris Township.
She is in the show, she said, because “I thought it would be fun to try out.”
Croom has lived in Morristown for most of his life, and finds purpose in his music.
“I’m mildly autistic and want to tell others with autism to not let anybody or anyone define what you can do,” he said.
Croom will perform Who’s Loving You by the Jackson Five on his soprano saxophone. He also sings, raps, and plays tenor sax and bass clarinet.
He is an alumnus of the Morristown High School Marching Band, and performed with the Delbarton Abbey Orchestra. When he is not playing with his band, High Anxiety, Croom is an accountant at Price Waterhouse.
Willie’s All Night Chipmunks
Ken Oettinger lives in Morris Township and was playing his harmonica on the deck when he was overheard by neighbor Geoff Woodling, an acoustic guitarist and vocalist. They connected with bass player James Mazalewski and drummer Glenn Ashley.
“We jammed together and tried to come up with something we all liked,” said Oettinger.
The group was looking for a slightly more Americana sound. “Then Geoff put an ad in craigslist because we thought we would need a fiddle player. Mark Hesselink responded and joined us.”
A year later, the band has open mic nights at Hennessy’s Pub, Hoover’s Tavern and The Stanhope House under its collective belt, along with a fundraiser for Temple B’nai Or.
“My youngest son is a senior at M.H.S. this year,” said Oettinger, “and he urged us to try out for the show. It’s the last year to see his father on the stage, so here we are.”
The group will perform the classic Boom Boom, composed by blues icon John Lee Hooker and featured on the soundtrack of the 1980 Blues Brother movie.
Things have a way of working out.
Frank Saia never was supposed to be a solo act. But next month the spotlight will be all his when he plays piano and sings.
“I used to be involved in the show, then I dropped out. My band was supposed to play and they all dropped out,” Saia said.
“I just kind of showed up, got up and played and can’t believe I’m in it!”
Saia will perform Blue Sky by the Allman Brothers.
When six friends discovered a shared passion — and talent — for making music about a year ago, the AHNA band was born.
The acronym stands for the Alexander Hamilton Neighborhood Association.
“We all originally lived near Alexander Hamilton School, we love our neighborhood community, and we love making music together, so naming the band after the amazing place that brought us together felt right,” said vocalist Chris Kirk, who also plays keyboard and trumpet.
They are performing a rollicking version of Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 hit I Will Survive.
Everybody chimes in on vocals. Michael Aberback is the drummer; Scott Wild, a member of the Morristown zoning board, plays guitar; and DJ Smith handles the bass. Irene Avlonitis plays violin, while her husband, Douglas Vorolieff, a naturalist with the Morris County Park Commission, joins in on the vibraslap.
After starting a monthly jam session, the group eventually decided to share its musical bounty with others, performing at local house- and block parties.
“We love the Morris School District and the MEF. Most of us have kids in the schools and have attended past Onstage events,” said Kirk, adding that “this event seemed like a great place to share our story and art.”
This ensemble weaves together many threads from Greater Morristown.
“Kevin made me do it!” said Mimi Hayes, a retired teacher from the Morris District making her performing debut.
Kevin Coughlin, editor of MorristownGreen.com, became friendly with Mimi and her daughter, lead singer Munah Hayes, through Munah’s yoga class at the Morristown & Morris Township Library.
Coughlin appeared in Morristown Onstage in 2016 with The Uke-A-Likes, and remembered covering Munah for Morristown Green when she performed at one of the first editions of the show. “You hear that voice once, and you never forget it,” he said.
The three of them teamed up last summer to play at The Minstrel’s monthly open mic, run by the Folk Project in Morris Township. The audience demanded an encore. Drummer John Hone of The Minstrel house band wanted to join the fun, and he suggested bass ace Todd Dennison to round out the quintet.
They will perform Besame Mucho, inspired by arrangements from the Morristown Uke Jam, where Coughlin strums weekly at the South Street Creamery.