“And the winner is…….” HPAF Crosses the Finish Line


What a marathon! 

Not able to gather students, faculty, and audiences for instruction and live performances on Big Island as has been usual for the past 15 years, HPAF Executive Director Justin John Moniz and his energetic and dedicated team didn’t decide to cancel. Instead, they took this COVID year as a creative challenge.  Presto change-o! In short order, they produced an online musical marathon – 14 events in 14 days. Whew!  Even the audience was out of breath as we approached the finish line.

The final event was a vocal competition, this time in musical theater.  As with the classical competition, eight finalists from all three levels of singers in HPAF’s training and performance program competed.

The five judges were top-ranked musical theater professionals. Lindsey Mendez and Ann Harada (left) both have made it on Broadway; former HPAF student and Big Island native Aidan Wharton was a cast member for the national tour of Wicked. Paulina Villareal and William Christensen have participated in HPAF as faculty and have highly successful careers as performers and teachers. We remember with pleasure hearing them sing in past HPAF seasons.

When you see a star performance on stage such as one by Lindsay Mendez, you can be awestruck.  It’s a rare treat to talk to them as we did during the question and answer session, and to find out that even a Tony winner is still in fear of how people will react to their latest performance. A Tony doesn’t guarantee continued success, Lindsay told us, especially when she keeps pushing her own envelope – such as taking on a leading role in a TV series. That said, the Tony looks great on her shelf! Paulina and William were asked, “What makes a student more likely to achieve their goal of a professional musical/acting career?” They both said what made a student stand out was their “hunger” for learning, having the curiosity to investigate all kinds of musical and theatrical genres, and a strong work ethic. Ann and Aidan are both from Hawaii, which is not a place where going to the theater is popular, probably since people would rather be outside! Both said that therefore, they didn’t wait for theater to come to them, they created theater projects themselves. It was evident for all five, not being a performer is not an option. It’s in their DNA, it’s what they do.

And what a line-up of singers!  There was only one contestant from the Young Singers category, 15-year-old Big Island native Olivia Malouf, who sang “The Sound of Music,” describing what the Waimea hills usually sound like during HPAF season. Kimberly Casey’s mezzo voice and dramatic rendering of the tragic “You Don’t Know This Man” from Paradestirred our own emotions. Spenser Rose showed off his ability to invent gestures and facial expressions to enact a boy whose self-confidence rises from zero to one hundred in “I’m Not That Smart” from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Nicole Cherecwich was feeling “Gorgeous,” (from The Apple Tree), and her confident soprano told us so.

Sarah Duren

Voted the audience favorite, Mallory Fischer hilariously pattered “What’s Gonna Happen” from Tootise. It was a fitting choice for this competition as it describes the doubt, anger and “I don’t care” changes that the contestant goes through as they await their turn to audition – probably to fail to secure that coveted part or prize again!  Mallory has the makings of a comic performer with her expressive face and great timing.  Third place went to Collin Ellsbury who sang “Blue Town” from The Pajama Game. His strong and steady tenor was fitting for the resolve of the character who must find his way in an unfriendly new place. Sarah Duren placed second; her mezzo-soprano was rich and resonant as she depicted the orphaned Anastasia, who is struggling to understand who she is.

And in first place, the winner was Encrantz Fellow Nyla Watson (who also placed second in the classical competition)!  She belted out “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” from Songs for a New World, her voice strong, tough, and self-confident, as one would expect from the fearless woman in the song. With her dramatic sense and vocal control, she fully inhabited the character.  She laments that her love interest “David” is afraid, afraid to hold her, afraid to love her….   but I felt sorry for David because it would be hard not to be afraid of someone so self-assured. Yes, Nyla is ready to go and tear up Broadway!

But the biggest winner of all was…. the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival. They took a chance on a virtual 2020 season, that provided both the core components we are familiar with: teaching and learning, great performances, centering Hawaii Island.  They then added new features: intimate settings, questions, and answers, opening masterclasses to the public. The result? Growing the fan base to 2000, developing the capacity for online events, closer contact between audience and performers/judges – innovations that will continue to help HPAF grow and prosper. Our appetite has been whetted as we anticipate what new goodies HPAF will throw our way. It’s wonderful when everyone can feel like a winner.


Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high! Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.

Photos courtesy of the Hawaii performings Arts Festival.


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