MONTCLAIR, NJ — More than 100 young performers will be taking the stage at Montclair State University’s Memorial Auditorium on July 27 and 28 as the Paper Mill Playhouse puts on its annual “New Voices” concert, the culmination of the theater’s Summer Musical Theater Conservatory. The show has a new theme each year, and this year the company is staging “From Sea to Shining Sea,” a collection of musical theater and patriotic songs that create a story about America. Six performers are from South Orange, Maplewood and West Orange, ranging in age from 11 to 17.
“It’s a celebration of the United States,” Mark Hoebee, the Paper Mill’s producing artistic director, said about the show in a phone interview on July 13. “All of the music is from Broadway, they start with singing ‘New York, New York,’ and then travel across the country to Hollywood.”
Songs in the show include: “Good Morning Baltimore” from “Hairspray,” music from “Chicago,” and the first act’s closing number, “My Shot” from “Hamilton.”
The performers are organized into three groups: the junior company, with students between the ages of 10 and 12; the junior plus company, performers between the ages of 13 and 14; and the senior company, high school students between the ages of 15 and 18. All the performers must audition for the show and, once accepted, audition again for specific roles. Then the rehearsals begin, continuing until the show opens. This year the show is at MSU due to ongoing renovations to the Paper Mill Playhouse theater in Millburn.
“There are numbers that they learn together, they integrate the whole show together,” Hoebee said. “Each age group has its own director. There are choreographers and a staff director for each one.”
Riley Hahn, a West Orange resident in the junior plus company, said that each age group comes together to put the production together.
“There’s an ensemble cast that works together to make a story,” Hahn said in a phone interview on July 13. “And I think it’s going to be really good.”
Hahn is a rising eighth-grader at Liberty Middle School, and this is her second summer in Paper Mill’s summer theater program. Now that she’s been through the audition process, she is a little more comfortable with performing.
“I feel like if you really work hard it will be easier,” she said. “So it’s been easier.”
Hahn has also performed in the LMS production of “Alice in Wonderland” and the Paper Mill productions of “The Cat in the Hat” and “101 Dalmatians.” She doesn’t have plans to leave the stage anytime soon.
“This is what I want to do when I grow up,” Hahn said.
Hoebee said the performers make the show their own — when they audition for specific roles in the show, producers and directors are looking for talent that fits the show’s theme but can also add something special to it.
“We look for some kind of charisma or passion, that unique ‘it factor,’” he said. “We look for the talents that best fit that role. But if we see someone unicycle across the stage while playing the piccolo, we try to incorporate that. Our goal is to teach the kids about the arts.”
The directors are teaching the performers, but the students are also learning from one another, according to senior company member and Maplewood resident Ben Halperin. A sophomore at Columbia High School, Halperin also performed in the “New Voices” concert last year.
“Every single person there is extremely nice so it’s been great,” he said in an email on July 15. “There are specific classes where we can critique each other and watch each other perform so we learn a lot from each other too. At times rehearsals have been stressful just because of all of the music and choreography we have to memorize, but overall they have been fun and I look forward to performing it.”
Halperin, who also aspires to be a professional actor, said that performing at the Paper Mill and working with the staff there is one of the best ways to get started.
Charlotte Post-Lipnick is another young performer from Maplewood who will appear in the show as a member of the junior plus company. The 14 year-old Morristown–Beard School student is a veteran of the “New Voices” concert, 2018 being the fifth year she has participated.
“When I first started I had no idea what I was doing,” Post-Lipnick said in a phone interview on July 13. “I wasn’t expecting what it would be like. But it has gotten easier.”
Post-Lipnick also likes the staff that is putting the show together, saying that the choreography and dance portions of rehearsals are her favorite things to do. Another benefit, she said, is meeting performers from other schools and towns.
“We have a dance teacher that coordinates all of it,” she said. “She’s really fun and funny and I love working with her. And I have a lot of good friends that I’ve met. The ones who haven’t done it before are getting used to it, and it’s coming along.”
Alonzo Gallo, an 11 year-old Maplewood Middle School student, is performing in the show for the second year. He also said he’s enjoyed making new friends while in rehearsals for the concert.
“It’s fun working with them, I’ve made some new friends,” he said in a phone interview on July 13. “My favorite is learning all the music. I love doing ‘My Shot’ from ‘Hamilton.’”
One performer from West Orange is currently preparing a duet — Samantha Powell and Union High School student Ashley Phillips will be singing “What About Love” from the musical “The Color Purple.” Powell is also a veteran of the “New Voices” show, having been a part of the cast in 2017.
“It’s intense but fun,” she said in a phone interview on July 15. “It’s fun because I meet people on a daily basis. There’s people from all over. Someone is coming from New York every day, and we even have someone from Idaho. It’s great to work with all of them.”
Powell, who will be a senior at Newark Academy in the fall, said that she wasn’t primarily a musical theater performer before becoming a part of the Paper Mill’s summer program.
“I wasn’t much of a dancer,” she said. “But I grew to love it a lot, there’s a dance number in the show that’s fun. And I was more of a jazz singer than musical theater, so it was a little nerve-wracking. I did the school musical, but I wasn’t that into it. After this, I came back excited to do my school musical, because doing it and watching more shows made me excited about it.”
Powell isn’t sure she wants to continue performing professionally after high school, but is keeping her options open.
“I love public policy and activism, which is why I love this show so much,” she said about the patriotic theme of the Paper Mill show. “It’s relevant to what’s going on, and theater has always been outspoken. There’s a lot of relevant topics in the show. So I definitely want to do it as an extracurricular activity, and we’ll see after that.”
Hoebee said that the “New Voices” concert showcases young, talented performers who could become successful actors one day.
“Anne Hathaway started here, and we’ve had Tony-winners start here,” he said. “These are some of the most talented kids you’ll ever see.”
To purchase tickets to see Hahn, Halperin, Post-Lipnick, Gallo, Powell and South Orange’s Rowan Wechsler in “New Voices 2018,” visit www.papermill.org.
Photos Courtesy of Paper Mill Playhouse