Nothing beats a live show.
Thirteen top amateur acts from Greater Morristown proved that on Wednesday, at the 15th anniversary edition of Morristown Onstage.
After a pandemic pivot to virtual last year, the fundraiser for the Morris School District returned to the stage of the Mayo Performing Arts Center, where a big, boisterous crowd cheered for performers ranging in age from 10 to 65.
Some familiar faces left with prizes:
Zion did Michael, and earned $1,000 and an audition to sing before a Jets game. That’s Zion Pearson, age 12.
Two years ago he won $500 as the audience favorite; this time he wowed the judges for top honors with his no-holds-barred rendition of the Jackson 5’s I Want You Back.
Surprisingly, his victory surprised him.
“Honestly, I wasn’t expecting it, because there was so much talent here,” said Zion. (On stage, he simply goes by Zion.) His takeaway: “Honestly, just keep on trying your hardest, and you got it.”
In the adult category, Sabrina Genesis, who took an honorable mention in last year’s live-streamed competition, won the $1,000 prize for her soulful vocals on Tori Kelly’s Paper Hearts.
Genesis said her winnings will help fund her wedding in the Dominican Republic, where her family hails from. She described her performance as a “haze.”
“It’s like I do it, I feel exhilarated doing it, but I don’t remember what I did on stage,” she recounted. “Once I get off stage, it’s like what did I do?”
The Unity Steppers, a step drill team from the Morristown Neighborhood House, won hearts and $500 as the audience pick, chosen via texted votes. The money will buy uniforms for the team, said coach Aida Harris.
The Steppers take the “Unity” part seriously.
“We’re all like sisters and brothers. We always welcome anyone into our team,” 10-year-old Jennisis Hylton said of her 10 teammates. Tahjanique Harris, 19, insisted anyone can get the hang of their highly choreographed routines.
“It’s really easy. You can do it!” she said.
Tess Carvelli didn’t just sing smoothly. She sang smoothly in Japanese–and that clinched the $250 Rossoff Rising Star Award. Her number was Always With Me, from the 2003 Oscar winning animated film Spirited Away.
As a bonus, Morristown High School’s drama department performed Welcome to the Renaissance, from its upcoming production of the musical comedy Something ROTTEN! (March 25-27, 2022).
Other familiar faces included Tara Bernie of PEOPLE (the TV show!), shimmering for her eighth year as emcee.
Melanie Smith also returned to chair the show for the nonprofit Morris Educational Foundation, which says Morristown Onstage has raised more than $1.4 million over the years for programs in the school district.
A raffle with $30,000 in prizes was added this year to further boost the bottom line.
Smith acknowledged some anxious moments as the Omicron variant surged before the holidays. But last month she knew the show would go on, and Wednesday’s roaring crowd was sweet music to her ears.
FROM THE KITCHEN TABLE TO THE BIG STAGE
Fittingly, the talent judges for this anniversary show included Vince Morreale.
Morristown Onstage (then known as Morristown’s Got Talent!) was hatched at his kitchen table in Morris Township, and he chaired the first four years.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think we’d get over $1 million,” Morreale said.
He was joined Wednesday by Mayo CEO Allison Larena, Morris Arts Executive Director Tom Werder, New Jersey Youth Symphony Conductor Helen Cha-Pyo, and Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey Resident Director Brian Crowe, all veterans of prior Morristown Onstage panels.
As Werder watched the show, he was looking for “someone who can command the stage and really kill it.”
All the finalists were talented, added Cha-Pyo. But she, too, was seeking something extra.
“It’s the connection,” she said. “Are we drawn to your performance? Do we want to jump on stage with you?”
There were plenty of captivating moments. Morristown High School student Allison Chong, another second-time finalist, performed a mesmerizing combination of aerial and floor acrobatics that suggested a new Olympic sport.
Doing the over-60 set proud, bassist Ed Fleischman and guitarist Larry Maltz, appearing as 10 Strings 4 Hands, served up an ethereal interpretation of Every Little Thing She Does is Magic by The Police.
Cara Ann DePeri of the trio Caracella paid a powerful tribute to her late mother, reaching deep to belt out Shallow, the Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper hit.
Morristown High junior Ella Lindner got the night off to a fine start with a commanding cover of the Gnarls Barkley hit Crazy, and later sang and danced with the high school musical ensemble. The band Background Noise got everyone’s blood pumping with a hard-charging ’80s medley.
And every kid in the 1,300-seat theater was rooting for Tara Bernie when, hinting at the wintry forecast, she put Morris School District Interim Superintendent Thomas Ficarra on the spot:
“Snow day?” she asked, thrusting the microphone at the super.
But Ficarra, who attended the first Morristown Onstage back in the 20-aughts, did not wilt in the spotlight.
“Maybe,” he answered.
Morristown Green correspondents Marion Filler, Jeff Sovelove, Alexis Algazy and Hannah Rose Williams contributed to our coverage.