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See All The Red Carpet Action Here

Notes from a Red Carpet: The twinkling faces of the 2017 Paper Mill Playhouse’s Rising Stars
by Rich McNanna










- The cast of Summit High School’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

Ominous gray skies couldn’t keep throngs of enthusiastic theatergoers from gazing at the accumulated rising stars last night on Baldwin Court.

For it was here that the “red carpet” was unfurled to welcome an assortment of cowgirls, 19th Century French runaways, colorfully-dressed office workers, et al. – their parents, friends, and well-wishers satelliting the dozens of young performers in attendance who were there to perform on stage and celebrate one another’s accomplishments amid the backdrop of a tangible, celestial anticipation.

Oh.  And maybe win an award or two, as well.

It was the evening of the 2017 Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards, and I had the pleasure of cruising the scene and meeting some of the hopeful nominees.

First up: the first young man I came across. A gentlemanly sort sporting a goatee and frock coat. The name: Gary Bowman of Eastern Regional High School – a nominee for “Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role” for his portrayal of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. I asked him what it took to get to this moment and how he felt standing there… waiting to enter the building. He said,

“A lot of work. A lot of late nights learning these intense songs. They’re actually really scary. Everybody knows them because Les Mis is such a popular musical, so it’s really scary to do something everyone knows. Because if you don’t match even a little bit of their expectations…  it can be very scary. But, honestly, the fact that anyone thought that my performance was worth any amount of praise is just awesome.”


Next, a charismatic young lady in a mid-Century blue professional’s dress caught my eye.  She was Brittany Hill of Delaware Valley Regional High School – a nominee for “Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role” for her role as Roz Keith in 9 to 5: The Musical.  
When asked how she felt on this momentous night, her response was simple and honest: 

“I’m just so excited and overwhelmed. It’s a dream being here. It took a lot of hard work to get here.”


Taking a slight stroll, I came across a group of young men I couldn’t pass up. Jason Myers and Brandon Gerhalis of Rahway High School’s Big Fish. They were getting pumped up to perform the musical number “Be the Hero” in front of the capacity crowd expected for the evening’s festivities.  And when asked what they were looking forward to the most, Mr. Myers was blunt: “An award!”

He added,

“It feels great to be here. Feels great to be back in costume and see everyone else do what they love because I love doing it too.”

Picture5Not knowing if a similarly dressed young cowgirl to the gentlemen’s left was with them or not, I unknowingly approached Ms. Maggie Spector-Williams – a nominee for “Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role” for playing Annie Oakley in Nutley High School’s Annie Get Your Gun.  She was there with her father.
I asked how her evening was going. She said,

“It’s going really well.  We came here for rehearsal around 2, and I bonded with all of the other female leads. They’re so incredibly talented, and I now have new friends which is awesome because we’re all going to be doing the (Paper Mill) Summer (Musical Theatre) Conservatory together. And we got to watch some of the other performances practice.  So, it was really cool to see everybody – everybody is really talented, and I’m just really excited to be here!”


Finally, it was James Von Heston’s turn – Toynbee in Summit High School’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He seemed quite excited to be a part of a very, very energetic Summit High squad. As I’m sure he was looking forward to performing on stage, himself, this evening, he had some humble and kind words for his fellow nominees:

“I was in there earlier watching them rehearse – the casts of all of the best productions – and there are a lot of very good ones.  The “Best Actor Medley?”  I’m just warning you now…there’s a lot to look forward to.”

And boy was he right.

I stuck around until a light mist arrived – most timely, I might add – around 7:25… five minutes before the scheduled start time of the evening’s festivities. It forced all of us to quicken our pace inside and take our seats.

What ensued was a night of dynamic performances, humble acceptance speeches, and an atmosphere of support and positivity from all involved.  

And strangely enough, my night ended as it began: with a young man from Eastern Regional High School accepting top individual honors for his role as Jean Valjean. 

Yes, Gary Bowman, the first student performer with whom I had the pleasure to chat on this inspiring evening was on stage accepting his award to raucous applause. He thanked whom he thanked with grace, humility, and charisma.

But it is I who would like to thank him and all of the other participants of the evening’s ceremony – you filled that room with passion and overwhelming talent, and I was the better for experiencing it with you.

All photos c/o Rich Mcnanna
Richard McNanna




Having originally hailed from Newark and a graduate of Seton Hall University, Rich McNanna grew up a stone’s throw from Paper Mill Playhouse in Springfield, NJ. Now a teacher in and resident of Westfield, he and his wife and son experience theater, music, and art with the same vigor as they do baseball. Paper Mill Playhouse is one of their favorite destinations.