Morristown Onstage had something to prove on Wednesday: Together We Can.
Somehow, the 14th annual edition of this amateur talent show lived up to its motto, delivering an entertaining evening despite a pandemic that pushed the competition onto the internet. All 14 acts competed via videos they recorded in basements, living rooms and studios.
The $1,000 prize winners — Morristown-Beard sophomore Maya Bhide in the youth division and the band Flight Lights in the adult category — were unanimous choices by the jurors.
“Even if I closed my eyes and listened to both winners, I would have liked them,” said Helen Cha-Pyo, conductor of the New Jersey Youth Symphony.
The $500 audience choice award, as voted by text messages, went to Panic! At The Mayo, a dozen Morris School District music teachers who actually never have performed together. Parts recorded separately were edited into a jaunty video of Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke.
Aidan Orbeta, an 8th grader at Frelinghuysen Middle School, won the $250 Rossoff Rising Star Award as a one-man band, magically playing drums, guitar, sax and clarinet on another Stevie Wonder classic, Isn’t She Lovely.
And Sabrina Genesis’ smoky rendition of Alicia Keys’ If I Ain’t Got You was good enough to land her an audition to sing the national anthem at a Jets game. Bhide also will get that chance.
Usually held before rollicking fans in the 1,300-seat Mayo Performing Arts Center, Morristown Onstage went virtual to continue a tradition that so far has raised more than $1 million for programs in the Morris School District. Some 617 households watched, according to show organizers.
“It took a lot of mountains to climb to get here,” said TV personality Tara Bernie, hosting for the seventh time.
She emceed live from the MPAC lobby, introducing the pre-recorded performances and interviewing the performers and judges via Zoom.
Viewers paid $25- to $100 to watch the webcast, which included a live raffle of a Jeep and other donated prizes.
There were a few technical hiccups, and some homemade videos were more polished than others.
Melanie Smith, who chaired the show committee for the Morris Educational Foundation, did not yet have figures on how much money was raised on Wednesday. But she was pleased everything came together under challenging circumstances.
“‘Together we can virtually do anything. Tonight I think we did,” Smith said.
‘SHE OWNED IT’
Fifty-five acts submitted video auditions for Morristown Onstage 2021, which was open to amateur performers who live, work or attend schools in Greater Morristown, and to Morristown High graduates.
Highlights came fast in a show that clocked in at about an hour, not counting sponsor plugs. Lily Bauman was surprisingly convincing crooning Dolly Parton’s she-stole-my-man ballad, Jolene. Lily is 10.
Katie Adams, who runs the Morristown High drama program, gave a soulful spin to Make You Feel My Love, a Bob Dylan tune that spawned hits for Billy Joel and Adele. Through the miracle of video, Delbarton violinist Nicholas Yoo transformed himself into a string section for the Love Theme from Cinema Paradiso.
Peck School student Gianno Piloto managed a graceful dance routine in her living room. Zac Taylor from Morristown-Beard was ultra cool on Best Part by Daniel Caesar.
Vocalists Jamie Pooler (A Song for You), Bobbi Baitey (Hurt) and Christina Aloisio (Somewhere Over the Rainbow) were solid, and 20 members of the Frelinghuysen Middle School Select Choir sang with heart, remotely, on Come Alive from The Greatest Showman.
A special award should have gone to the choristers’ teacher, Gillian Erlenborn. She edited their video and the audience-choice-winning video for her all-teacher virtual band, Panic! At The Mayo. That involved slicing and synchronizing video clips from 32 individuals.
Still, any musical endeavor feels good during this strange period of isolation, she said.
“As a musician you’re always going to be listening in, and like, ‘Oh, I wish I had done this, or maybe that could have been a little louder or a little quieter,’ and all those things,” Erlenborn said of her edits.
“But at the end of the day…you can feel the joy that we all had” making these videos.
The top two winners gave abundant joy to the judges, who included MPAC President Allison Larena and Brian B. Crowe of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.
Flight Lights led off the show–a tough position for anyone trying to win a talent competition–with Franklin’s Tower by the Grateful Dead.
The band included trippy video effects, but it wasn’t the psychedelics that made a lasting impression, according to Cha-Pyo.
“Everyone’s delivery was passionate—they had something to say,” she said. “The solos really got my attention.”
Werder said Flight Lights was so good, he would pay to see them again. When COVID finally departs, he might find the quartet as the house band at Morristown’s Famished Frog. Drummer Tommy Riley, 23, started working there at age 16.
But the gig that Riley and bandmates Chris Riley (his bro), Matt Takesh, 23, and keyboard player Caleb MacGray are looking forward to is Morristown Onstage 2022. As victors, they’ve been invited to play live on the MPAC stage.
“The money is totally awesome,” Tommy Riley said of Wednesday’s $1,000 purse. “But getting to play next year will be an incredible experience.”
Bhide, a 16-year-old from Randolph, professed to be shy. Nobody’s buying that after watching her deft delivery of Mariah Carey’s Hero.
“She owned it,” said Cha-Pyo.
Bhide, who has worked with a vocal coach for a decade, displayed superior tonality, range, and poise. She was at ease in front of the microphone, and the camera.
“She was very expressive, and had really good pitch, which was a struggle for a lot of the singers tonight,” Cha-Pyo said. “At the end, she looked right into the camera and finished out the song…she executed beautifully.”
“I could have listened to her for hours,” Werder said of Bhide.
The singer’s relatives in India were part of the virtual audience. She plans to buy some recording gear, and donate the rest of her winnings to a charity she performs with, Dreamality Inc.
She finds Hero especially inspiring for these times.
“I feel whenever I sing the song, it lifts my spirits, like I can do anything,” Bhide said.
Maybe together, we all can.
Correspondent Marion Filler contributed to this story.