April 1, 2024

Got Talent: Unveiling the Broadway Talent in Your Own Backyard

4 min read| Published On: April 1st, 2024|

By Roxanne Brown

Got Talent: Unveiling the Broadway Talent in Your Own Backyard

4 min read| Published On: April 1st, 2024|

If the glitz and glamour of Broadway have always seemed out of reach, think again. The vibrant world of musical theater is closer than you realize; it’s thriving within community theater companies and high schools of Lake County. 

Among them, East Ridge High School’s (ERHS) Musical Theatre program shines as a beacon of talent and dedication with exceptional performances and recent accolades, including being a state-level Mainstage winner last year. 

The program is the only one in the county with a dedicated team: Theatre Director Christa Whittaker, Technical Director Martin Rohleder, Dance Director Jenn Stewart and Music Director Robert Walker. 

Students interested in becoming part of the audition-only team go through a rigorous selection process. And unlike many other schools, students don’t need to stay after school for rehearsals since the program runs for two periods each day during regular school hours.

“We’re always working out the best use of time, so whether it’s vocals, choreography, running scenes, working with soloists, we can achieve the quality we deliver because we’re not strictly after school,” Christa says. “We don’t usually have any after school rehearsals until the week before a show.”

ERHS’s Technical Theatre: Set Design & Production classes manages sets, props, lights and sound, with guidance from Mr. Roh. Some of the costumes are even sewn by ERHS students, with direction from Christa, whose vast theater background includes a passion for costuming. The school also offers advanced acting courses and pre-AP classes in dance and theater. 

With a parent organization supporting their efforts, the program has grown to involve over a hundred students in each production, including cast, crew and support roles. 

Christa expresses her love for the program and the satisfaction she feels from seeing her team and everyone involved come together to help transform students into confident performers. 

“We just have amazing people,” she says. “No one thinks they’re better than each other. Everyone helps each other grow. It’s just a huge family and we all motivate each other.” 

There is a competitive aspect, though. Robert says that the experience of thespian competitions and the prestigious nature of the Applause Awards presented by the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is invaluable. ERHS’ program has seen students perform at the Dr. Phillips Center, with some receiving prestigious awards for their work. Adjudicators evaluate characters and overall production, resembling a high school version of the Tonys. Robert says the students’ caliber and being able to excel at such events adds another layer of recognition to the program. 

“We compete in thespians competitions and last year we took a show to Tampa, which is our equivalent of a state championship,” Robert says. “It’s a challenging but rewarding experience.” 

The student perspective sheds light on the program’s impact on personal growth. ERHS senior and Stage Manager Brooklyn Smith reflects on her journey from a quiet freshman to the crucial leadership role she’s thriving in today. 

“I think that being able to work with both the cast and crew really helped me grow and learn because you really get to see both sides of it,” she says. “A lot of times, if you’re just crew or just cast, you don’t realize what the other side goes through.”

Alli Ayres, a senior and ensemble member, says she’s benefitted from the supportive and collaborative nature of the program. 

“What set me back in my earlier years was just my lack of confidence in myself, but because of this program, I’ve grown to know that I am capable. I just go out there and do the best that I can for every show, and I just put myself out there,” Alli says, adding that she likes how tight knit the group is and that “everybody helps each other.” 

Tristan O’Hea, a senior involved in various aspects of the program, including his role as president of improv, says he appreciates the opportunity to be a part of such a trailblazing program.  

“I know this program is one of the better ones in the whole county because they have a dedicated team and venues here for us. I really like being able to tell stories and share another world with general audiences,” Tristan says. “I also enjoy being a part of a story with my peers and the performative aspect of the shows, but I also like the actual literary portion of how the story unfolds and each character’s role inside it.”

Senior Hayden Middendorf acknowledges the positive impact on personal confidence provided by the directors and fellow students. 

“I’ve definitely gotten more comfortable because I’m around people that I’m friends with and the directors are so inviting and just care so much about us. You can see that through how they direct and treat us,” Hayen says. “Before, I wouldn’t talk or open up to people as much as I do now.”

Joelle Hamad, a junior, emphasizes the program’s role in helping students build confidence and open up.

“Being in this program and in this community has really helped me get out of my shell,” Joelle says. “It’s similar to the real world. You stay dedicated to this program and you always have somewhere to be and something to do. And the directors have been extremely helpful and supportive. They’re really, really amazing at what they do and their primary goal is helping us become the best actors we can possibly be.”

For a list of upcoming shows, to purchase tickets or to learn more about the ERHS Musical Theatre program, visit www.erhstheatre.com.

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About the Author: Roxanne Brown

Originally from Nogales, Arizona, Roxanne worked in the customer service industry while writing independently for years. After moving to Florida in 1999, Roxanne eventually switched her career path to focus more on writing and went on to become an award-winning reporter for The Daily Commercial/South Lake Press newspapers for 16 years prior to coming on board with Akers Media as a staff writer in July 2020 – her dream job come true.

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