Hawaii Performing Arts Festival (HPAF) provides high quality entertainment to Big Island audiences. ‘But it is also “a training and performance program,” as Justin John Moniz, Executive Director, reminds us. Many HPAF grads have gone on to Broadway, and various successful careers, utilizing the skills they acquired at HPAF. The Young Singer Showcase, directed by Paulina Villarreal at the Gates Performing Arts Center in Waimea, demonstrated admirably just how that’s accomplished. Chan Mi Jean is the music director and accompanist, and Zoë Lillis is the acting coach. Each of these educators plays an important role in developing these young singers. It shows.
Six talented, up-and-coming young performers presented solos, duets, and ensemble pieces to showcase their growing skills, not just musically but in stage presence, movement, enunciation, acting, and more: in short, all of the myriad of skills we expect from professional opera and musical comedy performers. The vehicle for the evening’s program was the well known ‘stages of grief,’ described by Villarreal as a “journey of discovery,” poignantly appropriate at this time in the world. In addition, the second half of the program lifted our spirits with the addition of “Stages of Happiness.” Each performer read a description of the emotion to be portrayed.
First on stage was Pierce Pearson, a handsome lad in an aloha shirt, spectacles (which he later shed), and khakis regaling the audience with “Waving Through a Window” from Dear Evan Hansen (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul), representing the grief stage Denial. His warm, enchanting tenor voice will grow in strength in the coming years, and he is well on the way to mastering confident moves and compelling gestures to complement his lovely voice.
Next, we heard from Matthew Weitzel, baritone, modelling a controlled, seething Anger, with “I Won’t Send Roses” (Mack and Mabel, Jerry Herman). This young man already has a well developed and memorable look. His choice of a white dinner jacket and black pants lent an air of the nightclub to his work. He brandishes a sophisticated highlight streak in his perfectly combed, neat, straight coiffure. Nature supplied him with compelling, smokey blue/green eyes. His movements and gestures are coming along and will almost certainly soon match his look.
Eric Gee, tenor, portraying Bargaining, with Alan Menken’s “Proud of Your Boy” from Aladdin, appears at first glance as young and innocent. Don’t be fooled. This young man commands the stage. He is clearly a favorite of his fellow performers, judging by the hoots and applause he received from the HPAF students in the audience. The rest of us added our full share of appreciation.
Matthew Weitzel returned to demonstrate Bargaining with “Vaga Luna” (Vincenzo Bellini) in Italian. These singers are learning their trade, not just in English, but in the languages of opera, as well. Linguist skills are vital to successful opera singers.
Clifton Chiang treated us to Depression with “Lost in the Darkness” (Jekyll and Hyde, Frank Wildhorn). Chiang was wistful and delicate in this number, but later showed us an entirely different side to his talents with a rousing rendition of Sondheim’s “Giants in the Sky” (Into the Woods).
Thalen Wiley, baritone, gave us “Caro Mio Ben” (Tommaso Giodani), also Depression, in Italian, of course. Wiley is a strapping lad and a commanding presence on stage. His voice is full and strong, and we can tell that those qualities will grow and become even more nuanced in the years to come.
Acceptance (the final stage of Grief) was the first ensemble piece and introduced us to Noelani Loughery-Kawaihoa, a tall, lovely soprano in a sequined evening gown. The music chosen was “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman (Pasek and Paul). The piece was staged with lots of movement, lots of coordination; all important skills for these young singers to master.
The Stages of Happiness included two duets, a trio, and a grand finale (All for the Best, Godspell, Stephen Schwartz) with the entire ensemble, featuring Loughery-Kawaihoa in tap shoes, dancing her heart out. She lit up for this, overcoming what might have been a touch of stage fright earlier on. Eric Gee had more chances to shine with the duet “Suddenly Seymour” (Little Shop of Horrors, Alan Menken), sung with Loughery-Kawaihoa, as well as leading the charge in the rousing finale. Wiley, Weitzel, and Chiang had fun with Frederick Loewe’s “If Ever I Would Leave You” (Camelot). Loughery-Kawaihoa rendered the classic “’Til there was You” (The Music Man, Meredith Wilson) and had a chance to sing in Italian with Handel’s “Bel Piacere” (Agrippina). Thalen Wiley gave us “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” (Oklahoma, Richard Rogers), which suited him well, and Pierce Pearson was ever more confident with Gabriel Fauré’s “Lydia.”
All told, the evening was delightful. Watch for these singers in the coming years.
About the author: Lisa Chu-Thielbar studied literature and journalism at UC Berkeley, creative writing at Stanford University, and worked as a science, technical and educational writer at NASA Ames Research Center in northern California.
Photos: Steve Roby
Performance date: 21/07/2022