Since their inception in 1996, the awards have ignited the careers of many notable performers

Presented by the Investors Foundation

paper mill playhouse rising star awards high school musical theater competition




2021 Rising Star Awards Program

As one of the nation’s leading theaters, Paper Mill Playhouse has a well-earned reputation for launching both performers and shows for Broadway. The theater was the recipient of the 2016 Regional Theatre Tony Award. Since their inception in 1996, the Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards for Excellence in High School Musical Theater presented by the Investors Foundation have ignited the careers of many notable performers, all of whom attended high school in New Jersey. Among the early nominees and winners are Academy Award winner Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables), Tony Award winners Laura Benanti (Gypsy) and Nikki M. James (The Book of Mormon), Tony nominee Rob McClure (Chaplin), Shanice Williams, star of NBC’s The Wiz Live! and Olivier Award nominee Jared Gertner (The Book of Mormon).

This year’s award recipients will be announced during the 2021 Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Awards Presented by the Investors Foundation, which will stream on Paper Mill Playhouse YouTube and Facebook outlets on Monday, June 7 at 7PM.

Among the top nominated high school performances and student achievement efforts, Delaware Valley Regional HS has five nominations, Ridge HS has four nominations, and St. Peter’s Preparatory School, Union HS and Madison HS each have three nominations.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic caused rolling school building closures and social distancing restrictions, leaving many New Jersey high schools unable to produce a traditional musical at their schools with a live audience.  Despite the restrictions, theater educators found new ways to teach students with strict Covid protocols in place, or explored new concepts for virtual rehearsals and performances.

With this in mind, Paper Mill launched an abridged Rising Star Awards program that preserves essential elements that serve both students and teachers and continues to provide a meaningful recognition platform for the school community.  Paper Mill welcomed video submissions of student performances for a shorter list of categories: Outstanding Solo Performance by an Actor and Actress; Outstanding Performance by a Small Ensemble and Large Ensemble; the Student Achievement Awards for non-performance contributions; the Rising Star Scholarships for graduating seniors and the Theater for Everyone Inclusion and Access Award.  A new honor, Outstanding Educator Award, has been added. Winners will receive the crystal Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star Award made exclusively by Tiffany & Company.

“We are very excited to celebrate excellence in high school musical theater with the students of New Jersey. For many New Jersey schools, the prestigious honor of a Paper Mill Playhouse Rising Star nomination is the culmination of their hard work in a high school musical. Many of our Rising Star nominees and winners are now working professionally and have won esteemed industry awards while working in theater, television and film.”
– Mark S. Hoebee, Paper Mill Playhouse’s Producing Artistic Director

“After a most difficult year, the Rising Star Awards are a testament to the determination and commitment of student performers and the dedication of the teachers involved in high school theater programs,” said Investors Bank Chairman and CEO Kevin Cummings. “Investors Bank is proud to present the awards and to encourage students to rise up each day in pursuit of their dreams. You are the essence of the show business mantra, ‘the show must go on.'”

In addition to recognizing performances, Paper Mill Playhouse will award $5,000 in scholarships at the awards ceremony.  Five $1,000 cash scholarships are given to outstanding individual students who plan to continue studying theater performance, education, or technical theater in college. In addition, Paper Mill Playhouse is pleased to award a prize of $1,000 to a school receiving the 2021 Rising Star “Theatre for Everyone” Inclusion and Access Award, a partnership with the New Jersey Theatre Alliance and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, to recognize excellence in the promotion and practice of creative inclusion of students and adults with disabilities as performers, designers, musicians, and production staff. This award seeks to recognize and reward a school that takes steps to ensure their performances are accessible to audiences with disabilities.

New to the Rising Star Awards in 2021 is the Outstanding Educator Award which will put the spotlight on educators nominated by their home school districts for their distinguished service to their students and theater programs.  A $1,000 prize will be granted to the recipients’ school theater programs.

Lastly, students receiving a Final Nomination in the Outstanding Performance by an Actor and Actress categories will receive a full scholarship prize to attend Paper Mill Playhouse’s competitive professional training program, the Summer Musical Theater Conservatory, at the Millburn theater during the month of July. Conservatory students take advanced classes in singing, acting and dance on a hybrid schedule – both in-studio and online—and will appear in the filmed musical theater montage, New Voices of 2021: Stand By Me.  New Voices is directed by Paper Mill’s professional creative staff and will be filmed in July with a World Premiere in September.

Rising Star scholarships are made possible by Ruth Bedford in memory of Jane Burgio, Walt Santner in honor of Janet Sovey, and the Douglas Michael Krueger Scholarship Fund Trust.

The 2021 Rising Star Awards Ceremony and the “Theater for Everyone” Inclusion and Access Award are part of the New Jersey Theatre Alliance 2021 Stages Festival, made possible by support from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts; Bank of America; The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey; OceanFirst Foundation; the George A. Ohl, Jr. Trust; New Jersey Historical Commission; and Fund for the New Jersey Blind. njtheatrealliance.org/stages



Alex Belle, Collier HS, “My New Philosophy” from YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN

Emma Casertano, Ocean County Vocational Technical Schools-Grunin Performing Arts Academy, “The Music and the Mirror” from A CHORUS LINE

Leonor Fontanez, Delaware Valley Regional HS, “Cleaning Women” from WORKING

Halle Lipton, St. Peter’s Preparatory School, “Lying There” from EDGES: A SONG CYCLE

Kyra Longenecker, Madison HS, “I Want to Go to Hollywood” from GRAND HOTEL

Khadijah Sankoh, Union HS, “Waiting for Life” from ONCE ON THIS ISLAND

Yemie Woo, Pascack Hills HS, “Fabulous Baby” from SISTER ACT – WINNER



Will DeLargy, Morristown HS, “All I Care About is Love” from CHICAGO

Collin Flanagan, Madison HS, The Lady Must be Mad” from ILYRIA

Michael Bryant Kessie, Delaware Valley Regional HS, “Joe” from WORKING – WINNER

Nicholas Matos, St. Peter’s Preparatory School, “Monticello” from EDGES: A SONG CYCLE

Miguel Ramirez, Lawrence HS, “Dulcinea” from MAN OF LA MANCHA

Max Rodriguez, Ridge HS, “Gus: The Theatre Cat” from CATS

Jonah Ruderman, Livingston HS, “Who I’d Be” from SHREK: THE MUSICAL



County Prep HS, ”The Most Amazing Thing” from LITTLE WOMEN, featuring Ivellisses Segovia, Mathew Segovia, Kayla Velazquez

Delaware Valley Regional HS, Brother Trucker” from WORKING, featuring Michael Bryant Kessie, Dakota Krouse, Maddy Clyde, Mark Westling, Gabi Pfefferte, Tori Kelly

Ocean County Vocational Technical Schools-Grunin Performing Arts Academy, ”Sing” from A CHORUS LINE, featuring William Einbinder, Gabriella DeBenedict

Pinelands Regional HS, ”Secrets” from THE ADDAMS FAMILY, featuring Nadia Vito, Lily Targett

Ridge HS, Macavity” from CATS, featuring Elisabeth Schmitt, Eileen Brady, Eve Armstrong, Samantha Rascio, Morgan Connell, Gabriella Hairston, Jordan Perla – WINNER

Summit HS, ”King of New York” from NEWSIES, featuring Sydney Veloso, Hope Pierotti, Avery Johnson, Anna Sullivan, Theo Errig, Ethan Engmann

Union HS, ”Forever Yours” from ONCE ON THIS ISLAND, featuring Khadijah Sankoh, Makayla Michel



Columbia HS, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from HAIRSPRAY

Delaware Valley Regional HS, All the Livelong Day” from WORKING

Madison HS, ”On My Way” from VIOLET

Ridge HS,  “The Jellicle Ball” from CATS

St. Peter’s Preparatory School, “Become” from EDGES: A SONG CYCLE

Summit HS, “Seize the Day” from NEWSIES – WINNER

Union HS, “Mama Will Provide” from ONCE ON THIS ISLAND



Atlantic County Institute of Technology, Dominic Roberts, Dance Captain – WINNER

Bridgewater-Raritan HS, Liz Driscoll, Dance Captain

Bridgewater Raritan HS, Sophia Pedroso, Stage Manager – WINNER

Delaware Valley Regional HS, Simon Kinderman, Designer: Cinematography/Production/Pit – WINNER

Immaculate Heart Academy, Grace Capeless, Assistant Director/Film Editor – WINNER

José Martí STEM Academy, Felix Tavarez, Assistant Choreographer

José Martí STEM Academy, Clarisse Moreno, Kathy Bernal, Oliver Villalta, Writing Team – WINNER

Morristown HS Lorelei Eck, Student Director

Mount Saint Dominic Academy, Hema Davalla & Sophia Garske, Production Stage Managers

Mount Saint Dominic Academy, Kiera Carbone, Ava Ciauro, Lynn Jean-Baptiste, Sound Board Operators

Pascack Hills HS, Valentina Cannao, Scenic Designer & Assistant Director

Piscataway HS, Melly Merida, Scenic Illustrations – WINNER

Randolph HS, Kathleen Brennan, Christine Hamilton, Jilliane Najera, Digital Designers

Ridge HS, Morgan Beatty, Student, Director – WINNER

Summit HS, Emma MacPherson, Costume Crew Head – WINNER

Toms River HS North, Archie Bird, Tech Crew – WINNER

Voorhees HS, Owen Tabor, Choreographer/Dance Captain

Westfield HS, Ben Zakharenko, Sound Designer – WINNER

Westfield HS, Josh Saxon, Scenic Designer / Asst. Technical Director



Elizabeth Volpe, Atlantic County Institute of Technology

Pete Gambino, Cherry Hill HS East

Michael Penna, Collier HS

John Giresi, Fair Lawn HS – WINNER

Jim DeVivo, Holmdel HS

Blake Spence, Madison HS

Cindy Dwyer, Mater Dei Prep – WINNER

Jodi Bosch, Mount Olive HS

Jensyn Modero, Mount Saint Dominic Academy

Bart DiFrancia, Pinelands Regional HS

Anne Poyner, Summit HS – WINNER

Steven Collins, Union County Academy for Performing Arts

Nancy Reynolds, Voorhees HS



Collier HS

Madison HS – WINNER

Piscataway HS