Celebrating its 10th Anniversary, Songbook Academy held its finals concert, which I attended Saturday at the Palladium at the Center for the Performing Arts. Having covered the academy since it was created by Five-time Grammy nominee Michael Feinstein, founder of the Great American Songbook Foundation in 2007, I have seen it grow steadily since its inception, culminating into a richly artistic, educational and transformative program that now attracts students from coast to coast. Of the 40 “All Stars” finalists who traveled to Carmel to participate in the week-long summer intensive of workshops and classes, the top 10 performed for judges and were awarded titles in front of a near-capacity crowd.
With Feinstein serving as emcee, Act 1 of the program consisted of the All Stars Choir singing a mashup of “It’s a Good Day” and “On a Wonderful Day Like Today,” followed by solo performances by the finalists, accompanied by musical directors Tex Arnold, Jeff Harris, Russ Kassoff, Beckie Menzie and Melanie Shore on piano. After their performances, Feinstein joined the choir in Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.”
Following an intermission, a behind-the-scenes video of the week’s activities was shown, after which each of the top 10 performed an additional song prior to Feinstein leaving the stage to join the judges deliberating backstage. In the meantime, singing what has become a tradition at the finals and one of its most poignant ones, the All Stars, led by mentor Elaine Moebius, sang “You’re Gonna Hear From Me.” Afterwards, foundation board chair Carolyn Anker made remarks and introduced a video featuring Songbook alums.
Prior to the announcement of the winners, 2016 Songbook Youth Ambassador Lilly Rasmussen, who just completed her freshman year at Marymount Manhattan College in NYC, performed “I’m Old Fashioned,” exhibiting the uncommon talent and stage presence that won her the top award last year. Increasing the suspense, Rasmussen sang another song, “You Are My Lucky Star,” once it was determined the judges needed yet more time to make their decision.
The first titles bestowed were various honors. The winners were announced by the vocal coaches to eager applause and included Robert Barksdale Buffalo, New York – Most Promising Artist, Jack Ducat, Carmel High School- Spirit Award (chosen by peers), Michael Di Leo, Waban Massachusetts– Musical Theatre Award, Dae’Quan Horton, Claymont, Delaware – Most improved and Grace Mozitis, Linwood, New Jerrsey– Mentors Award. Concluding a program that lasted a little over three hours, Feinstein then swiftly announced the top three.
Christopher Santiago, 17, from Royal Palm, Florida, won the Songbook Celebration Award. A classic crooner and mature beyond his years, he charmed the crowd with his renditions of “When I Fall in Love,” and “You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini).”
Eighteen-year old Natalie Leclair of Pittsford, New York, in possession of an appealing, one-of-a- kind vocal tone and showing extraordinary poise and ease on stage, won the Songbook Inspiration Award. Her song choices for the concert included “Devil May Care,” and “My One and Only Love.”
The top honor of Songbook Youth Ambassador went to Fayetteville, New York’s own Sadie Fridley, a 16-year old phenom who aspires to work on Broadway. She wowed the crowd and obviously the judges when she sang Great American Songbook classics “You’ll Never Know” by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon and “Day by Day” by Axel Stordahl, Paul Weston and Sammy Cahn. A junior at Fayetteville-Manlius High School near Syracuse, New York, Fridley’s career will get a kick start with opportunities that will include singing the national anthem at NFL games and performances, some with Feinsten, at such venues as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and Feinstein’s cabaret clubs in New York and San Francisco.
Each gifted in his or her own right and showing promise as future stars in the entertainment world were the remaining top 10 performers: Lily Bogas of Mill Valley, California, Josephine Corrao of Oswego, Illinois, Cassidy Ewert of Bossier City, Louisiana, Sierra Safran of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Trevor VanEaton of Shreveport, Louisiana and Nicole Wildy of West Friendship, Maryland.
Cynthia Kauffman, who hails from Zionsville, Indiana, enjoyed the loudest applause from the assembled crowd cheering on their hometown performer. Having raved in a review of about her first-rate turn as the title character in Summer Stock Stage’s recent production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” it was no surprise to me that she landed in the finals.
Following the performance, I had the chance to chat with Fridley, Leclair and Santiago, as well as some of the other All Stars. Each year, when I cover the academy and finals, one of my favorite activities is attending the informal gathering for students and family members and friends held after the concert.. I found the top three and all their peers to be bright, engaging, respectful and most importantly, humble. Upon meeting some of their proud and beaming parents, it is easy to see why their progeny possess such characteristics.
Coupled with the positive culture of the Songbook Academy, with a tone set by Feinstein and Lewis, the entire experience always leaves me feeling uplifted and inspired. Most importantly, it gives me hope, not only for the preservation of the Great American Songbook, but also the future of the entertainment business and the world in general that stands to benefit from the talents and personal qualities of these exceptional young people.
For more information about the Songbook Academy, visit www.thecenterpresents.org.