Behind the curtains at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables the electricity crackling through the air was fueled by anticipation – rather than weak-kneed nervousness – as the contestants readied to take the stage. The performers, who ranged in age from 8 to 17, were all finalists for the third annual Young Talent Big Dreams competition, a Miami-Dade countywide youth talent search sponsored by The Children’s Trust in partnership with the Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre.
The semifinals and finals, held on successive weekends in late April at the Miracle Theatre, culminated a series of seven auditions that began in November 2012 and were held at venues around the county. Hundreds of Miami-area children and youth vied for top honors in seven categories: Individual Vocal, Dance, Musical Instrument, Spoken Word and Original Composition; and group categories (up to six members) in Dance and Vocal/Instrumental. The competition highlights the importance of performing arts programs, energetically supported by The Children’s Trust for their capacity to inspire youth, build character, and lead to professional careers.
“Both from the literature and by seeing it firsthand, we’ve learned that the performing arts are an essential component of youth development,” said Charles Auslander, Interim President and CEO of The Children’s Trust. “These programs provide something very, very special.”
Nineteen acts competed for prizes that included master classes with industry leaders; performance opportunities; and tickets to professional performances. The grand prize winner received $500; individual first-place winners received $250; and first-place group winners received $50 each. Every winner also went home with a 2013-2014 Actors’ Playhouse Flexible Anytime Subscription for two (a $558 value) and professional headshots by Alberto Romeu Photography. The winner of the Dance category also received an unlimited scholarship to the Thomas Armour Youth Ballet.
The spoils certainly dazzled, but a few words with some of the young artists before the house lights dimmed proved that they were just the icing on the cake.
“Being on stage, that’s my happy place,” laughed 16-year-old vocalist Leia Schwartz, a student at Coral Reef Senior High who performed an original song. “I’m not the shyest person in the world!” Schwartz, who took up vocals to help combat a severe childhood breathing ailment, relaxed backstage with her father, David Schwartz, prior to the show.
“She’s very comfortable in front of an audience, very much at ease,” he agreed. “I’m proud of her.”
“Performing is definitely a rush,” said Felipe Herrera. “I like being able to express myself through my music.” The 15-year-old pianist, another Coral Reef Senior High student, won for the Individual Musical Instrument category in 2012, and this year competed in the new Original Composition division. Winners from previous years may compete again in a different category.
Haley Zilberberg, a 17-year-old spoken word artist and student at the School for Advanced Studies, also made a return engagement to Young Talent Big Dreams.
“I made the finals last year, and the semi-finals the year before that,” said an excited, yet composed Zilberberg. “I love writing and I love being on stage – and spoken word lets me do both.”
Elsewhere, other fresh-faced entertainers ran through one last dance sequence, tightened their instrument strings, secured a hair tie or chatted amiably with family and friends, taking cell phone shots and giggling. The poise and aplomb demonstrated by the kids didn’t surprise Children’s Trust Senior Communications Manager Emily Cardenas.
“Arts education programs like this one perform several functions,” said Cardenas. “First, they provide kids with an outlet to express themselves creatively and emotionally, and that helps them to become more well-rounded people. Second, performing arts require an enormous amount of discipline and commitment, and those are skills that help children excel in their academics and in every other aspect of their lives. Finally, taking part in an arts program gives kids an extraordinary amount of self-esteem and confidence. It helps them believe that they can accomplish anything.”
The embodiment of that declaration was evident throughout the finals, as one performer after another wowed an engaged audience. Earl Maulding, director of Children’s Theatre and Education at the Actors’ Playhouse, served again this year as the evening’s master of ceremonies. Maulding was as thrilled and impressed with the talent on stage as ever, as were the finals’ judges: David Arisco, artistic director, Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre; Howard Cohen, Miami Herald columnist; Jodie Langel, Broadway and television actor, singer and author; and Natalie Lewis, musician, spoken word artist and executive director of PATH (Preserving, Archiving & Teaching HipHop), Inc. Wells Fargo was the primary event sponsor, with support from many other local organizations, all with an eye toward bolstering local kids, the arts, and the community at large.
And it is indeed the community that ultimately benefits from initiatives like Young Talent Big Dreams, said Barbara Stein, executive producing director of the Actors’ Playhouse.
“Creativity and the arts build a better person,” she said. “And if you build a better person, you build a better world.”
Returnee Zilberberg took top honors in the Spoken Word category, with an impassioned, powerful and personal account of a long-fought illness, while Herrera performed an impressive, bound-for-Carnegie Hall piece that garnered him a win for Original Composition, his second competition win in as many years. Scarlett Barone, 8, charmed everyone with a sassy, Latin-infused and cabaret-influenced dance number that had hands clapping and feet stomping in time with moves that earned her a win for Individual Dance. And nine-year-old Stephanie Safont’s tiny fingers flew across the piano keys in a hummingbird-like blur, as she played a classical piece the judges named best performance in the Individual Musical Instrument category.
A rousing rendition of “It’s a Hard-Knock Life” from Broadway’s “Annie” by six-member Kamila & the Crew took the win for Group Musical Instrument/Vocal, while a sequined and pink-clad sextet from IK School of Gymnastics tumbled their way to the top of the Group Dance category.
But it was 14-year-old singer Fiona Campbell with her delightful delivery of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” by Lulu & The Lampshades that edged the Glades Middle School student just above the rest of her talented peers, securing the Grand Prize as her mom, brother, aunt, uncle, grandmother and family friends erupted in cheers from the audience.
“I’m so excited!” said Campbell after all the balloons and confetti had drifted down from the theater ceiling. Her big win in the Individual Vocal category came with a special grand prize: a recording studio session and professionally produced song by award-winning producer and musician Paul Fakhourie, who has worked with Eric Clapton; Nas; Stephen, Damian and Ziggy Marley; and Lauren Hill.
“I wasn’t nervous or anything,” added Campbell, her face flushed with excitement. “But there was so much talent out there tonight – I’m so honored that I won.”
Young Talent Big Dreams Competition Winners
Haley Zilberberg, 17, School for Advanced Studies, South Campus
Felipe Herrera, 15, Coral Reef Senior High School
Scarlett Barone, 8, North Beach Elementary
Fiona Campbell, 14, Glades Middle
Individual Musical Instrument
Stephanie Safont, 9, G.W. Carver Elementary
Group Musical Instrument with Vocals
Kamila & the Crew
Kamila Manzueta, 17, Coral Reef Senior High School; Juliet Burks, 10, Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart; Soleil Deoring, 10, home schooled; Sawyer O’Keefe, 11, Ada K. Merritt K-8; Jonathan Pfleger, 11, Gulliver Academy; Sydney Schneider, 11, Sunset Elementary
IK School of Gymnastics Scarlett Barone, 8, North Beach Elementary; Taela Graff, 8, David Lawrence Elementary; Clarisa Rodriguez, Ada K. Merritt K-8; Luna Safargaleeva, 8, Ruth K. Broad Elementary; Anastasia Soultanova, 8, Sunny Isles Beach Elementary; Hana Starkman, 8, Miami Country Day School