Vocalist Nyla Watson and pianist Ana Flavia Zuim wowed the Kahilu Stage Sunday afternoon. Donned in a glittering red sequined gown, Watson charmed the audience with her life in song. The rapport between singer and accompanist was warm and genuine, as Watson shared her heart on her sistership with Zuim.
Watson’s opening number, “Precious Lord,” was popularized by singer Mahalia Jackson but composed by the Rev. Thomas Dorsey at the inconsolable loss of his wife and infant son in childbirth; and was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite hymn. King’s last words before his assassination was a request to have it played that evening at a church service, and Jackson sang it at his funeral.
The rest of Watson’s repertoire was musical theater favorites, with delightful insights into the singer’s life and journey to her career.
A native of Brazil, Zuim is an award-winning musical director and serves as director of vocal performance and music assistant professor of vocal performance at New York University’s Steinhardt School. She is rehearsal pianist for the Broadway musical, “Hamilton,” associate conductor/vocal coach for multiple Broadway Across America shows and her curricula vitae goes on and on. She is dazzling on stage without the sequins – this reviewer enjoyed watching her youthful energy and command of the keyboard. Watson noted that Zuim was not only her accompanist for the concert, but her teacher, friend, and sister in the Lord Jesus.
Watson’s story of her journey to musical theater is inspirational. She grew up singing in church in Ohio, and as a high school freshman was approached by a teacher who asked if she would be interested in participating in the school musical. At the time, she did not know what a “musical” was. Fast forward to her graduation from Baldwin Wallace University’s Conservatory of Music, Watson is a musical theater actor who has appeared in PBS’ Live at Lincoln Center’s production of “Show Boat,” “Gigantic the Musical” (off-Broadway), as well as the touring companies of “Wicked” and “The Color Purple.” Her acceptance at New York University (NYU) was deferred twice due to her touring. NYU credits include Madame Rose in “Gypsy” and Reno Sweeney in the concert version of “Anything Goes” with the Broadway Orchestra Ensemble.
Watson holds a master’s degree in vocal performance and vocal pedagogy from NYU, under the tutelage of Zuim and HPAF Executive Director Justin John Moniz (associate director of vocal pedagogy and music assistant professor of vocal performance at NYU’s Steinhardt School where he leads the graduate vocal pedagogy program). Moniz also approached Watson in the hallway at NYU and encouraged her to audition for the 2020 HPAF Vocal Competition in Musical Theatre, where she took first place.
She dedicated “Being Alive” from Company to Moniz, who played the title role of Bobby in the 2019 HPAF production, and her “Don’t Rain on My Parade” was noted to her favorite cover by the amazing chanteuse, Nancy Wilson. Indeed, one wished to hear more Gospel music from Watson and was tempted to cry “Hana Hou!” a second time after the encore to see what else she could do! Keep an eye out for these rising stars.
If you missed the show, not to worry, it and other Hawaii Performing Arts Festival performances can be viewed on Kahilu TV.
Rona Lee is a music reviewer for Big Island Music Magazine.