By Marion Filler
In the end it was all about the voice.
In both categories, youth and adult, brilliant vocal performances won over the judges at the 12th edition of Morristown Onstage, a benefit for local schools that pitted 15 top amateur acts against each other at the Mayo Performing Arts Center on Wednesday.
Kiley Baxter, 14, took the $1,000 prize for her stunning rendition of I’ll Always Love You, immortalized by Whitney Houston.
For adults, top honors went to Kelly Miller who performed Nessun Dorma, an aria from Turandot.
A standing ovation followed both performances.
Fans in the sold-out 1,300 seat theater weighed in by text message with their own choice, worth $500 to Orion’s Belt, a sweet-singing trio of Charlotte and Julia Cama and Anna Grace Yurek. The 13-year-old classmates from Morris Plains brought the audience to tears with their rendition of Rise Up by Andra Day.
And guitarist Jag Sace who performed an original song, Fresh Sound of Music, accompanied by a video of an unseen hand sketching his portrait, came away with the $250 Rossoff Rising Star Award, which the Morris Educational Foundation gives to the act it deems most promising.
Slideshow photos by Jeff Sovelove. Click/hover over image for captions:
The performances were judged by Morristown singer-songwriter Eric Hayes, Morristown real estate executive and music aficionado David Welsh, former New Jersey ballet dancer David Tamaki, and Barbara Reuther of Morris Arts, a last-minute substitute for WDHA Program Director Terrie Carr, who had a family emergency.
“Kelly Miller blew me out of my seat,” said Eric Hayes. “It’s the interpretation. For me, it’s interesting for someone to take an opera song and make it their own.”
“Kiley Baxter sang the song perfectly as Whitney Houston did. She was spot-on,” said Hayes, adding that both women had “gorgeous voices and will go somewhere.”
Electricity was in the air as people filed past red carpet interviews in the lobby to cheer for their classmates, teachers, and neighbors, who emerged as finalists from a December audition that drew more than 50 hopefuls.
Each act was introduced with a brief video biography. Tara Bernie, a senior correspondent for DailyMailTV, kept the four-minute performances moving along.
When a voice from the balcony asked where she got her striking red gown, she said it was rented and would be returned after the show. She was totally at ease with the audience, sharing her amazement at the talent at hand.
“We never knew who would walk in to the tryouts,” said Bernie, “but can you believe all of this!” She grew emotional when performer Frank Saia dedicated Blue Sky by the Allman Brothers to her late husband, and again when Orion’s Belt dedicated Rise Up to Anna Grace Yurek’s mother, who is unable to walk.
Morris School Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast and Board Member Ann Rhines were in the audience.
“I feel proud and I feel lucky as the Superintendent of the School District,” said Pendergrast. “I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the entire room tonight. It’s a great night to celebrate the kids and we are all really proud to be part of this.”
“There is such great community spirit here this evening. Just go out in the lobby and see what it’s like. It makes me feel so good to be a resident of this Morristown, Morris Plains and Morris Township School District,” said Rhines.
The competition was open to amateurs who live, work or study in Morristown, Morris Township or Morris Plains, and to graduates of Morristown High School.
Morristown Onstage Chairperson Molly Servais was optimistic that Wednesday’s show would beat last year’s record of $143,000 raised for programis in the Morris School District. The evening included a sneak preview of The Addams Family, Morristown High School’s production on March 22-24.
Stay tuned for more from the show!