It’s funny how “tomorrow” all too quickly becomes “today.” For those of us who have been fans of the Hawaii Performing Arts Festival (HPAF) and the Kahilu Youth Troupe, we’ve already seen the stars of tomorrow become the stars of today — including HPAF’s multi-talented Executive Director Justin John Moniz, himself an HPAF alumnus.
HPAF’s Stars of Tomorrow post-high school performers must have inspired their younger co-cast members. They, like us, could see and hear what extra years of practice and coaching can achieve. Becca Barrett and Daniel Gregg were original members of the Kahilu Youth Troupe and have continued to perform over the last 12 years; Stacee Firestone has won national voice competitions and is on scholarship at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. But all of them, including the youngest person on stage, high school freshman Eric Gee, have numerous stage performances under their belts and most are HPAF alumna several times over.
The choice of music was appropriate to the young cast, mostly coming from musicals involving young people: West Side Story, Spring Awakening, Into the Woods. Beth Dunnington’s acting instructions and choreography were charming but simple, allowing the emphasis to be on the voices. With solos, duets, different mixes of singers, and opening and ending numbers with the full company, the variety kept our delighted attention.
A stand-out was Daniel Gregg in his solo “Tonight at Eight,” from She Loves Me. His timing was perfect, capturing a young man’s combination of fear of failure and expectation of love on a first date; he also conveyed the humor of self-mockery for the fretting. Daniel led the pack in stage presence, inhabiting his characters with an easy grace; none of his motions seemed contrived. Often, what emerging singers do with their arms is a problem; they are difficult appendages to manage!
The most emotionally powerful piece was “Mama Who Bore Me” from Spring Awakening. In a simply stated and mournful tone, Stacie Firestone took the lead with her strong soprano, which has gained in resonance since I last heard her sing. The entrance of the other women singers, Becca Barrett, Noelani Loughery-Kawailhoa, and Grace Todd changed the pace and the tone to one of anguish.
The two youngest performers, Eric Gee, and Patanjali Raul gave us a spirited version of the humorous “Gaston” from Beauty and the Beast. Benito Mercia navigated well the complicated harmonies of “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods in his deepening voice.
Earlier this year, HPAF made a commitment to the greater inclusion of artists of color in its program. They succeeded in this first in-person concert, with half the young singers from communities of color.
Hearing these young people again and again over the years heightens the pleasure each time. It is heartwarming to watch — and hear — them grow up and grow better. We will be looking for their names in lights. Tomorrow!
Meizhu Lui is a music critic for Big Island Music Magazine.