Competition crowns top young talent in county

The crowd sat in silence on pins and needles as finalists from each category walked on stage one by one to hear the judges’ decisions — then cheers erupted from the crowd as the winners were announced. It was the finals of the Young Talent Big Dreams competition on Apr. 28 at Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables.

Felipe Herrera, a 14-year-old pianist and student at Coral Reef Senior High, took top honors in the solo musical instrument category for his stunning performance of an original composition.

New World School of the Arts student Johnny Wright, 17, stole the show in the dance category with contrasting strength and grace, while a diverse group from the Thomas Armour Youth Ballet tapped their way into everyone’s hearts to win group dance.

Isabel Peña, 10, transported the audience to Broadway with her theatrical vocal performance, and Janay Blakely pierced souls with her powerful spoken word piece.

Esther and Gloria Chae, the final act of the night, electrified the audience with their precision and technical mastery of piano and cello and walked away as overall grand prize winners. The sisters, 9 and 12 respectively, took home a $500 cash prize and earned a private recording studio session with award-winning musician, producer and arranger, Paul Fakhourie, who has worked with such renowned artists as Eric Clapton, Stephen Damian, Ziggy Marley, and Lauryn Hill.

All of the Young Talent Big Dreams winners will continue to share their talent throughout the year with scheduled performances around Miami-Dade County. Winners also won the chance to attend master classes with professionals in their discipline. But regardless of who won, there were no losers at the Miracle Theatre, even after the last balloon and confetti flake floated to the floor.

“It’s been a great experience to get exposed to different people, actors, dancers, musicians,” said Shatorri Faison, 17.

Guitar player Christopher Torres actually passed on his high school prom to participate in the finale.

“It’s an opportunity to play for people, and I’ve never had a chance to do this before outside of school,” he said.

“When we watch and read the news every day we don’t often see the most shining examples of our young people, but when you come here and experience all of this extraordinary talent you realize hope is very much alive, and that our future is bright because of them,” said Modesto E. Abety-Gutierrez, president and CEO of The Children’s Trust, presenting sponsor of the competition.

The Young Talent Big Dreams competition, now in its second year, is coordinated by Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre. Seven auditions in all held at theaters from the northern corner to the southern tip of Miami-Dade, and hundreds of participants showcased their talents this year. The competition follows the popular TV talent show model, and judges have included a host of industry professionals from the performing arts community. Judges for the finals were Milton Granger, Howard Cohen, Daniel Lewis, Jodie Langel and Nerissa Street. Wells Fargo was the evening’s sponsor.

“Actors’ Playhouse is proud to have initiated Young Talent Big Dreams, in partnership with The Children’s Trust, to help develop young talent in Miami-Dade County,” said Barbara S. Stein, Actors’ Playhouse executive producing director. “The arts are a critical component to a wellrounded individual, both educationally and culturally, and arts programs develop character, self-confidence, and skills as much as the three R’s in traditional learning experiences,” she added.

“I had no idea I would make it into the finals. I was so surprised,” said Gabriella Ortega, 9. “I was really nervous in rehearsal, but once I’m on stage I get into it.”

Kristynn Portugues, 12, who has diabetes, wants kids to know that no chronic disease or disability should slow them down.

“I’m so glad to find a competition that’s really all about the talent God gave you and not about your looks,” she said.

Arantza Espinosa certainly didn’t let her visual impairment hold her back. Despite being blind, she and her performance partner, Eddy Camacho, both from Braddock Senior High School, won in the group instrumental/ vocal category.

A total of 88 acts made it to the semifinals, and 22 advanced to the finale. The contestants — all residents of Miami-Dade County — ranged in age from 8 to 17.

“Boy, do I love my job!” roared Earl Maulding from the stage.

The director of Theatre for Young Audiences at Actors’ Playhouse was the official emcee of the competition.

“It’s so inspiring to travel around Miami- Dade County and see all of this amazing talent. It’s also gratifying to see kids who didn’t make it to the finals last year come back again. It shows you that they have the perseverance to keep on trying and the desire to improve,” Maulding added.

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