When famous Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth performed earlier this month on the Strathmore Music Center stage, she was joined for her final two songs by some familiar faces: students from local group Young Artists of America.
The Young Artists of America program is a prestigious local performing arts training program for students in 6th-12th grade. This not-for-profit organization provides both educational training and performance opportunities for young people in acting, as well as vocal and instrumental music. Students from the entire Mid-Atlantic region participate in after-school sessions where they work with mentors who are professionals in their fields, and students come from all over, even internationally, to participate in the organization’s summer intensive programs.
The program is divided up into three primary groups: YAACompany, YAAOrchestra, and YAAjunior. The junior program consists of the pre-high school students, while the YAACompany is made up of the high-school vocalist/acting students and the YAAOrchestra are the high-school instrumentalists. Each year, the groups present several performances to allow the students to show off the skills that they work so hard to cultivate. The YAAjunior group has a yearly show of their own, the summer intensive groups perform three final performances, and the three primary groups present two fully orchestrated, main-stage productions each year. In addition, sometimes a small group of students gets to represent the larger group in special performances like the one with Kristin Chenoweth.
I had the opportunity and privilege to talk to some members of the group backstage before their performance with Ms. Chenoweth. The excitement within the group was palpable. I spoke to Samantha Yakaitis, who has been a YAA member for the last 3 years; this is her first year in the performing group after participating in the summer camps for two years. When asked about why she was excited to perform with Kristin Chenoweth, she said: “I have always really looked up to her as a performer, and she sparked my love for musical theatre with her performance in ‘Wicked’.” Samantha was very excited for her parents to see the show since she had been given a solo and they didn’t know yet that she would be featured. She says that she wants to pursue musical theatre in college.
I was also able to speak with co-founder of YAA Rolando Sanz, who shared that the students in the group are always fired up to have these amazing performing opportunities. “YAA strives to really prepare students for success as performers, and we really have the students’ back in the run-up to these high-profile events by giving them 6 weeks of high-level preparation,” Sanz told me. When I asked how these students do everything that regular high-school students do with this on top, he said it’s simple: “they do it because they love it.”
After their performance, which received a great deal of enthusiasm from the audience, I had the opportunity to speak with group member Vincent Douglass, who had an exchange with Chenoweth during the show. Vincent is 18 and a senior at Winston Churchill High School.
KF: What did you know about Kristin Chenoweth before your group was asked to sing with her?
VD: Before performing with KC, I’d known her as a theatre legend from onstage roles like Glinda and Sally Brown and also from her guest star appearances on Glee. I also saw her perform live at Strathmore in 2016 in the world premiere of “I Am Anne Hutchinson/I Am Harvey Milk.”
KF: What did it feel like to speak with her onstage and share your goals with someone like that?
VD: When KC walked over to me and started speaking to me, I couldn’t stop the absolutely giddy smile from breaking out on my face. I freaked out, even more, when she introduced herself to me! Even though the conversation was brief, it felt like she was really listening to my dreams and her confidence in me someday “ruling the world” as a theatre director meant a lot to me. Having the support of someone like KC in an industry where a lot of people don’t make it feels incredible.
KF: How did you feel after the concert? How did your family and friends react to your on-stage exchange with KC?
VD: After the concert, I felt exhilarated! I’ve performed at Strathmore multiple times, but there was something magical about sharing a stage with someone like KC and getting to sing right alongside her. When I went out to meet my parents, my mom was freaking out and already reenacting me and KC’s interaction, and later in the week at school, my drama teacher (who had been at the performance) congratulated me on the experience and asked me all about it.
These local students did the DMV proud with their performance alongside a Broadway legend, and continue to represent the pinnacle of youth performance and training in our area. Congratulations to YAA, and Rolando, Samantha, and Vincent!
If you missed these talented young people, they will be performing at Strathmore’s annual Spring Gala, which supports their education and outreach programs. YAA students will take the stage with Broadway stars Matthew Morrison (“Glee”, “Hairspray”) and Shoshana Bean (“Wicked,” “Waitress”) this coming Saturday, May, 4th 2019. For tickets, click here.
For my review on the full Kristin Chenoweth concert, click here.