By Mike Giuliano
8:16 PM EDT, March 27, 2012
The nine young adult performers who participated in the Howard County Arts Council's Rising Star competition all deserve to be considered winners, but only one of them went home with the $5,000 first prize. It was awarded to Samantha McEwen at the 15th annual Celebration of the Arts in Howard County March 24 in the Peter and Elizabeth Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College.
The 500 audience members acknowledged all nine performances with enthusiastic applause and also filled out ballots that were tabulated at the end of the event. The winning vote for McEwen was for her compelling rendition of the technically challenging song "Your Daddy's Son" from the Broadway musical "Ragtime."
"It's a scary piece, but I love the drama of it. I can do so much acting with it," McEwen said in the theater lobby after the event. After pausing to greet yet another audience member coming up to congratulate her, she added that she'll be starring in a production of "Ragtime" at the Laurel Mill Playhouse in May.
This particular rising star is a 29-year-old graduate of Howard High School. She received operatic training at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and also studied at the Ward Acting Studio in New York.
McEwen is musically eclectic, incorporating opera, pop, jazz and R&B in her full-length recital programs. "I really love doing all of it," she said with a truly winning smile.
Asked what she'll do with the $5,000, McEwen said she most likely will put it toward production costs for her self-produced first album, "Bitter Rains," which she plans to release by the end of this year.
A $2,000 second prize in the Rising Star competition was awarded to vocalist Luke Grooms, who did a selection from Rossini's opera "La Cenerentola." Grooms, who is an instructor at the Drama Learning Center in Columbia, has extensive opera credentials. He also does musical theater, including "Jerry Springer: The Opera" in New York and Boston productions.
The other Rising Star finalists were Alexandra Rodrick, who wore the requisite red dress as she performed an aria by the fatally seductive title character in Bizet's opera "Carmen"; Mark Allen, energetically doing the song "Lost in the Wilderness" from the musical "Children of Eden;" and Joe Duffey, an Irish Step dancer who stepped lively as he performed his own choreography.
Rising Star finalist Rasa Mahmoudian displayed speed and precision as this violinist zipped through a virtuoso piece by Paganini; the lean and limber modern dancer Antonio Beverly performed an original piece of choreography; percussionist Tim McKay basically attacked a massive bass drum for David Arbury's literally booming "Liebeschlag"; and bassoon player Eddie Sanders III showed great interpretive sensitivity in his selection from a sonata by Saint-Saens.
These promising young performers earned the applause of a festive crowd that included Howard County Executive Ken Ulman and his wife, Jaki, who served as honorary chairman and chairwoman for the event.
"There are a lot of events where there is a dinner in a ballroom, but this one is wonderful because you get to experience the performers," Ulman observed shortly before taking his front row seat for this performance-oriented program in Howard Community College's Smith Theatre. "This is like being at 'American Idol' in person."
The Ulmans have had a lot of theater on their schedule lately. Jaki Ulman said that their daughters, Maddie and Lily, were among the children performing in recent Toby's Dinner Theatre productions of "Annie" and "The King and I."
Besides providing encouragement and cash for rising stars in Howard County, the annual arts celebration raises money for arts activities in the county. Coleen West, executive director of the Howard County Arts Council, estimated that the event raised $75,000. Proceeds will be split between the arts council and the Horowitz center.
If it's the nature of most awards ceremonies to run longer than what's planned, this briskly paced arts gala clocked in at less than two hours. Ensuring that things moved along like clockwork was emcee Richard W. Story. The senior vice president for marketing at JPB Enterprises, Inc., Story formerly was the chief executive officer for the Howard County Economic Development Authority. What served him best on this particular evening, however, was his background in broadcasting. Conducting brief on-stage interviews with the breathless Rising Stars immediately following their performances, his confident voice helped calm them down.
The Rising Star competition puts the spotlight on new talent, but the Celebration of the Arts in Howard County also bestowed four previously announced Howie Awards to honor career achievement.
A Howie recipient who really stood out in the crowded lobby during a pre-show dinner reception was John Taylor, the longtime dance teacher and entertainer known as "The Kinderman." Preparing to receive a special Legacy in the Arts Howie, Taylor wore a yellow suit, red bow tie and black bowler hat. He also wore a smile as wide as his figure.
"I'm really honored that people still remember me," Taylor, 75, said as he looked around at the food plate- and drink-juggling crowd. Pausing as a middle-aged woman rushed up to thank him for once performing for her children, he went on to say: "Just being here is amazing to me."
Next, Taylor was approached by Bernice Kish, retired manager of Wilde Lake Village Center, who said, "I've known him for 35 years. We go back all the way. We watched him do a lot of shows" at Slayton House.
Appropriately, when John "The Kinderman" Taylor later was called up to the Smith Theatre stage to receive his Howie Award, he immediately got the audience to clap along as he delivered a rap-style acceptance speech.
The other Howie Award recipients were Hammond High School dance teacher Brooke Kuhl-McClelland, Outstanding Arts Educator; Mays and Associates, Outstanding Business Supporter of the Arts; and composer and teacher Dr. Tom Benjamin, Outstanding Artist.
The evening's program mix alternated between Rising Stars and long-established Howie recipients. It seemed appropriate that the evening ended by looking ahead, as the staged was filled with the children and teens comprising the Young Columbians. This vocal ensemble is directed by Toby Orenstein, founder and artistic director of the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts; she also runs dinner theaters in Columbia and Baltimore. Orenstein first formed the Young Columbians in 1975. The present ensemble was formed last fall.
These youngsters performed an inspirational medley that included "Give Peace a Chance," "Let the Sunshine In," "The Greatest Love of All," "We Are the World" and "Joy to the World." When their performance received the evening's only standing ovation, it amounted to a unanimous vote for the rising stars of tomorrow.
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