There can be few more inspiring moments on a Pittsburgh stage -- or in Pittsburgh, period -- than when 60 student performers, two each from the 30 high schools participating in the Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musical Theater, come together for the finale of the annual awards gala before a tumultuous Benedum Center audience.
"Shall we all stand together ... work together ... dream together," they sing, in the song by Kelly Awards music director Michael Moricz. Costumed as the characters from their original shows, they join in an explosion of creative joy. The audience cheers and for once the fate of the world seems as shiny as the faces and talent of these beautiful teens.
That seemed especially true this year, when the talent and the awards were so evenly spread. At Saturday's gala, the 16 awards were spread among nine schools, with only Pine-Richland (4), Pittsburgh Schenley (3), and Central Catholic and Baldwin-Whitehall (both 2) winning more than one.
This was the 20th year of the Kelly awards, conceived and produced by Pittsburgh CLO and now co-presented by the University of Pittsburgh. The CLO's Van Kaplan presided.
The crowd whooped with delight as the awards were presented by local educators and media celebrities. Interspersed were scenes from the shows of the nine schools nominated for best musical -- three in each of three budget categories. To someone who's been there every year, the average quality of performance seemed higher than ever.
There were also group cameo performances by the six students nominated for best actor and the six for best actress. The actors' cameos were woven together by director/choreographer Keisha Lalama-White with especially well.
Last year the Kellys graduated to the national level, spawning the National High School Musical Theater Awards, which the CLO co-produces with Nederlander Presentations. Nicknamed The Jimmys, after Nederlander patriarch James L. Nederlander, they bring the best actor and actress from the Kelly Awards and more than 20 other regional competitions to New York in late June to compete for scholarships and glory, with the final performance in Broadway's Marquis Theatre.
Representing Pittsburgh in the national finals this year will be Kelly winners Alex Field, named best actor for his Tin Man in Central Catholic's "The Wiz," and Andrea Weinzierl, named best actress for her title role in Avonworth's "Mame."
Named for Pittsburgh native and legendary musical theater star Gene Kelly, the annual event celebrates arts education and the energy and collaboration that go into high school musicals. Mr. Kelly's widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, presented the awards for best musical.
As she has in her appearances over the past 10 years, Mrs. Kelly was here early to meet with students in the program, watching rehearsals and inspiring them with the story of Gene Kelly.
At the gala, she appeared in an elegant gown of glittering gold and black ("for Pittsburgh," she said) with a red lining ("for fun") that occasioned whistles of admiration. Dressing up this way, she learned from both her husband and opera star Placido Domingo, is a mark of respect for the performers, recognizing the occasion of their art.
As always, she joked with the audience first and then, in her familar role as heart-felt moralist, delivered a brief, commencement-style address, inspirational for students and their elders alike. This year's was about keeping your eyes on not just the goal but the process, "and a little surprise like Gene Kelly might just come along and change your life forever."
This year's nine musical excerpts were particularly strong in dance. As always, the student prize-winners were articulate and self-possessed, lavishing praise on their student colleagues but also their musical's adult creative leadership.
The Charles Gray Award for Special Achievement in Arts Education was presented to Pittsburgh South Brook Middle School, in recognition of creative arts classes included as a required part of the curriculum.
Several scholarships were presented to college-bound seniors. Paul Hennigan, president of Point Park University, presented Andrea Weinzierl with a $20,000 four-year scholarship to study musical theater at Point Park's Conservatory of Performing Arts.
The CLO awarded Gene Kelly Cash Scholarships of $5,000 each to study performing or technical theater arts to Andrew Pace from Vincentian Academy, Carter Redwood from Pittsburgh CAPA and Donovan Smith from Woodland Hills. These merit-based scholarships are funded by Donald Arnheim, Paul E. Block and Virginia Nicklas.
The CLO Ambassadors awarded $3,000 scholarships to students pursuing a major outside the arts: Joshua Smith from Vincentian Academy and Patrick Baker from Bishop Canevin.
Kelly Award winners were chosen by a panel of some 30 judges, several of whom went to each show, with group consensus arrived at in a lengthy meeting on May 7.
The Kelly Critic Award is made in partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on whose website the student reviews are published. (Winning Kelly Critic review: "Seussical" at Chartiers Valley).
Additional Kelly Award support is provided by American Eagle Outfitters Foundation, PNC Bank, Virginia S. Nicklas and the CLO Ambassadors. The Charles Gray Award is made possible by the Roy A. Hunt Foundation.
All-Student Orchestra: Plum
Supporting Actor: Spencer Whale, North Hills (Lumiere, "Beauty and the Beast")
Supporting Actress: Maddie Georgi, Hampton (Miss Adelaide, "Guys and Dolls")
Ensemble: Pittsburgh Schenley
Crew/Technical Execution: Woodland Hills
Choreography: Pittsburgh Schenley
Actor: Alex Field, Central Catholic (Tin Man, "The Wiz")
Actress: Andrea Weinzierl, Avonworth (Mame, "Mame")
Pittsburgh Schenley, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown"
Level II: Central Catholic, "The Wiz"
Level III: Pine-Richland, "Children of Eden"
Shannon Hussey (Baldwin-Whitehall)
Judges' Award: 10 year-old William Davis (Avonworth's "Mame")
The 30 Allegheny County high schools participating: Avonworth, Baldwin-Whitehall, Bishop Canevin, Brentwood, Central Catholic, Chartiers Valley, Deer Lakes, Hampton, McKeesport, North Catholic, North Hills, Northgate, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Penn Hills, Pine-Richland, Pittsburgh Allderdice, Pittsburgh Brashear, Pittsburgh CAPA, Pittsburgh Perry, Pittsburgh Schenley, Plum, Quaker Valley, Riverview, St. Joseph, Shaler, Springdale, Vincentian Academy, West Mifflin, Winchester Thurston and Woodland Hills.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: firstname.lastname@example.org .