ATLANTA – Competition for the annual Georgia High School Musical Theatre Awards, called the Shuler Hensley Awards, has grown fierce since their creation nine years ago. So it is especially noteworthy that Johns Creek High School’s production of “Cinderella” brought home four Shulers at the April 20 Musical Theatre Awards sponsored by ArtsBridge Foundation.
Emma Grace Crumbley gave the Best Performance by a Supporting Actress in the role of “Madame.” Brothers Brennan Blotner (Best Orchestra Direction) and Kellan Blotner (Best Sound) also brought home Shulers.
Debbie Prost, head of the JCHS Theater Department (and Shuler nominee for Best Director), said the school does one major musical annually, and this year’s production of “Cinderella” began in November.
“We start from scratch. We teach all the music, phrasing and shaping notes,” Prost said. “It is 10 or 11 weeks from the start. And that is with a cast of 58 and a crew of 25.”
Then there is the costuming in which a group of parents volunteered – and received a nomination. Students learned to sew and pitched in.
“And the results were much better than we could have rented,” Prost said.
Cinderella’s “transformation” dress in which she goes from drudge to debutante before the audience’s eyes was made “from scratch and simply stunning,” she said.
“It was a great production for us from top to bottom,” Prost said. “We were nominated for Best Overall, and that put us as one of six nominees among 78 schools participating.”
Shuler winner Shannan O’Dowd as musical director has some 200 students in the program or nearly 10 percent of JCHS students. She said it is a talented group.
“We had 104 involved in the show [counting orchestra] and Allison Pulaski came over from Dolvin Elementary to do our choreography,” O’Dowd said. “So it is a big group and a big challenge. But we had a great team.”
But most of the work is done entirely by students. Orchestra Direction and Sound were done by brothers Brennen Blotner (Orchestra) and Kellen Blotner (Sound). They have to hit the ground running.
As orchestra leader, senior Brennen Blotner said the biggest challenge was just “getting off the ground.”
“You have to establish a process. That’s the hard part. But I had an amazing group of musicians who made my job easy,” he said. “The best part is seeing it all come together so well.”
Brennan was a special talent as well, O’Dowd said. He was the first student to lead the orchestra in a major JCHS musical.
“He made it incredibly successful. It takes a special type of student to do that,” she said.
Brennen plans to attend Florida State University in the fall to study music education. Ultimately he would like to be a director of bands at the high school or college level.
A Shuler will look good on his resume.
But he did allow there was some pressure at the awards ceremony. He is 20 months older than brother Kellen who had already won his Shuler for Sound. Was he relieved to have his name called in that situation?
“More than you can imagine,” Brennen said.
As sound director, Kellen had to manage the sound balance, make sure actors were miked properly and that the mikes worked well.
“Mikes are super temperamental,” he said. “I had to adjust them throughout the play. You also have to know the play well because it is your job to cue the performers.”
Brennen finds sound mixing interesting works with video broadcasters on sound. He would like a career as a film producer.
Emma Grace Crumbley enjoys acting and has been “doing theater” since the age of 8. She took the plum role of Madame and ran with it.
“But this was my first time in a leading role as ‘Madame’ [Cinderella’s stepmother],” she said. “As I was developing the character I did a lot of research. Everyone knows the story. I wanted to add some things so that she doesn’t just fade into the background.”
She “played around with Madame’s voice having fun to be both wicked and comic.
“I wanted to be tight with the cast too, because I knew once I was in character, I would be really nasty. At the end of the day, everyone loved it.”
Madame has some really funny lines, said Crumbley. So she worked hard on her delivery to get the right pitch and timing. Obviously the judges were pleased with her characterization enough to give her the Shuler.
Crumbley has been accepted to the University of Georgia and plans to continue acting in community theater in Athens. But she won’t be in the UGA theater program. She wants a career in medicine.
The Shuler Awards are fashioned after Broadway’s Tony Awards to celebrate excellence in high school musical theater.
35 public and private schools from throughout the state were nominated in 17 categories for Shuler Awards this year.
To determine the nominees in 17 categories, a team of more than 60 Georgia-based arts professionals evaluated the productions of 75 participating high schools.