“You all play a role in helping us decide who wins the grand prize of $1,000 tonight,” Steven Lloyd, the executive director of Haywood Arts Regional Theater, told the audience before the show.
A panel of three judges with professional backgrounds in theater and musical performance rounded out the voting bloc. But the audience was well aware of their own starring role. The power of the ballot was, after all, part of the allure for the spectators in the first place. But it came with a caveat.
“You can vote for one, only one. It’s never an easy choice,” Lloyd warned the audience before the show.
The line-up was diverse and part of the challenge. A belly dance troupe, an opera singer, a smattering of Broadway show numbers, jazz routine, and even a comedian had made it past the first two elimination rounds and secured a spot on stage the final night of the contest.
But comparing a harpist to a pop singer to a teen guitar virtuoso was a classic case of apples to oranges — partly a test of talent but also personal tastes.
They had one thing in common, however. All the contestants were laying it on the line, throwing themselves at the mercy of a scrutinizing panel of judges to be measured, sized up, compared and contrasted. Performing always bears the inherent risk people won’t like you, but a talent contest is the epitome of that.
“If it is your first time and you are getting judged by everyone watching you, it would be intimidating,” said Brynna Sinyard, a high school junior in Haywood County who has starred in local musical theater productions herself but was only there to watch last Saturday.
Although it wasn’t exactly American Idol — there were no cameramen in the dressing rooms to capture the heartache, tears and crushed dreams of the losers — the judges put each performer through a brief public critique, for better or worse, following their number.
The judges mostly lobbed soft balls, asking performers about their daily practice regimen, who their costume designer was, who helped choreograph their number, where they learned to play.
But judges offered some constructive criticism along the way, from compromised breath support due to nervousness to stiff, wooden hand syndrome.
Most performers were no stranger to the stage. Several have been cast in productions by Haywood Arts Regional Theater, or had spent years studying and performing with MusicWorks, a local dance and acting studio for youth.
But a few were true first-timers.
Although judges complimented Dominic Frost as a natural on stage — a cool, laid-back persona reinforced by his head of thick dreadlocks — the 17-year-old guitarist fessed up that he’d never really performed outside church or audiences or fellow teens.
“I am terrified right now. I am so scared,” Frost told judges during his critique, wide-eyed yet surreally calm as he spoke those words.
After her performance of the song “Angel,” Charlotte Rogers admitted to judges she was a novice outside singing in church.
“I am pretty nervous, it is the first time I’ve ever done this,” Rogers said during her panel critique.
Rogers came with her own cheering section though, including her 14-year-old son Sam, who came to support his mom in her first debut on a real stage.
“I know she’s been practicing because every time I get in the car that CD is on,” Sam said.
Ben Sears, a senior at Tuscola High School, performed a gravity defying dance number from Billy Elliot. Sears won the top prize of the night, in part due to the audience appeal of his high-flying routine that blended jazz, hip-hop and ballet.
“On Broadway they have three young boys play that part in the show because it is so physically exhausting,” Judge Raymond Yarnutoski said during the critique of the number.
Sears is no stranger to the stage, starring in numerous musical theater productions through Music Works and HART.
Dominic Frost, a 17-year-old homeschooled senior, wowed the audience with both his raw talent and technical aptitude — a guitar virtuoso in the making. Frost has learned from his parents and from watching YouTube videos. Once known to practice seven hours a day, he’s now limiting himself to three or four.
“You are truly a artist,” the judge Ann Rhymer Schwabland told him after his performance. Frost took home second place.
Ricky Sanford, 22, captivated the audience with his jaw-dropping and horrific rendition of “The Smell of Rebellion” from the new Broadway show “Matilda.” Sanford’s number was the epitome of evil — yet laced with comical antics.
While he came in third overall, his stage presence and theatrical talent made him the favorite of at least one judge.
“OMG … move over Ms. Hanniken,” Judge Raymond Yarnutoski said after the erupting applause finally subsided. “That was really, really, really entertaining. How long did it take you to learn it to that level of perfection?”
Sanford, despite no formal training, has been a star in HART productions, and will soon be making a career announcement.