A soprano tackles a tenor classic, a teen transforms a pop standard, and judges say ‘Wow!’ at Morristown Onstage

Anna Grace Yurek of Orion's Belt with flowers after the trio won the audience choice award at Morristown Onstage 2019. Photo by Louise Witt
Anna Grace Yurek of Orion's Belt with flowers after the trio won the audience choice award at Morristown Onstage 2019. Photo by Louise Witt
By Louise Witt

On the big stage of the Mayo Performing Arts Center on Wednesday night, two winners of Morristown Onstage belted out big songs with big voices and even bigger emotions.

Kelly Miller, a waitress at Arthur’s Steak House in Morris Plains, sang an Italian aria, while Kiley Baxter performed a pop ballad.

Miller, who also teaches voice at the County College of Morris, said winning the $1,000 prize for contestants 19 years or older shows how music can transcend barriers.

She sang Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s opera Turandot.

“Even though opera is in another language, I’m breaking those borders,” Miller said. “Beautiful music and having your heart in something really prevails.”

Why she chose a Pavarotti hit. Video by Louise Witt for MorristownGreen.com:

Baxter, a 14-year-old Bridgewater High School freshman who won the $1,000 prize for contestants under 18 years of age, says she thought about Whitney Houston and her family, when she performed I Will Always Love You.

“It’s a tribute to Whitney and how she lived her life,” she said. “For me, it’s love.”

Kiley on Whitney. Video by Louise Witt for MorristownGreen.com:

Fifteen acts participated in the 12th annual Morristown Onstage, a competition for amateur performers who live, work or study in Morristown, Morris Township or Morris Plains, or who are graduates of Morristown High School.

In addition to the two main awards, there was one for the audience’s favorite and one for the most promising performer.

Orion’s Belt, a trio of 7th graders from Morris Plains Borough School, won the audience choice award and a $500 prize for their three-part harmony rendition of Rise Up by Audra Day.

Jag Sace, a Morristown High School junior from the Philippines, won the $250 Rossoff Rising Star Award for the most promising performer. Sace played the electric guitar and sang his original song, Fresh Sound of Music.

While he performed, a video rhythmically edited to the music showed him drawing a self portrait. Sace told the audience it was his version of a music video.

Anna Grace Yurek, Julia Cama and her sister Charlotte of Orion’s Belt said they chose Rise Up to showcase their voices.

The song also had a special meaning, since Yurek’s mom is still recovering from a brain hemorrhage. After school, the girls worked on the harmony arrangements. The hardest part?

“Definitely, staying focused,” Julia Cama said.

The biggest challenge for Orion’s Belt. Video by Louise Witt for MorristownGreen.com:

The three friends weren’t expecting to win.

“Feels really good,” Yurek said.

Why Orion’s Belt chose ‘Rise Up.’ Video by Louise Witt for MorristownGreen.com:

With so many talented contestants, the judges said it was difficult to pick a winner for the two main categories.

David Tamaki
David Tamaki

In fact, at one point, they even discussed having a tie. “We loved so many of the artists and so many of the acts,” said Barbara Reuther of Morris Arts, one of the four judges. “It was really a challenge.”

But the winners stood out. Miller impressed the judges with her strong, emotional performance. “She blew me out of my seat,” said David Tamaki, director of advancement for the New Jersey Ballet and a former principal dancer. “Just that voice, that powerful voice.”

“It was overwhelming,” agreed Eric Hayes, a singer-songwriter who has performed with the Allman Brothers, Martin Sexton, Rachel Platten, Ziggy Marley and others.

Moreover, he said she sang the aria, popularized decades ago by famed tenor Luciano Pavarotti, as he has never heard it sung before. “She made it her own.”

Morristown singer Eric Hayes performs at TEDx Morristown, March 28, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Morristown singer Eric Hayes performing at TEDx Morristown, March 28, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

In contrast, Hayes said Baxter sang an almost perfect rendition of Houston’s interpretation of I Will Always Love You. He said she was “extremely confident” in her performance.

“Both singers are absolutely gorgeous,” said Hayes. “Both are going to go some place very far, I think.”

Baxter, who releases cover songs on her YouTube channel, said the award gives her more confidence to pursue a record deal. “This makes me want to do what I do even more and I’m so grateful I that I got this opportunity.”

Miller was happy to win, but she was also grateful she had the chance to perform one of her favorite pieces of music.

“It’s so beautiful, honestly,” she said. “And tenors sing it, so I’d never get to sing it.”


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