After a year of anticipation, a popular audition process that brought in contestants from across Santa Barbara County, and weeks of mentorship and rehearsal, the sixth annual Teen Star Santa Barbara came to the Granada Theatre on Saturday.
Performing in front of a sold-out crowd, the evening featured 10 teen hopefuls vying for the title, but in the end there could be only one winner: 14-year-old Sydney Shalhoob of San Marcos High School.
The invention of Joe Lambert six years ago, Teen Star was designed to capitalize of the ever-increasing popularity of singing contests and to find a way to help fund arts funding for schools.
Since then it has turned into a major event in Santa Barbara, and Mr. Lambert wisely moved the event this year to a few weeks after the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
This year’s panel of judges was Moss Jacobsm vice president of talent for Nederlander; casting director Wendy Kurtzman; recording artist Margo Rey; and PCPA’s Erik Stein, though members of the Granada crowd were also part of the final decision, texting their choices for the winner.
Sydney won the grand prize of the $1,000 scholarship and a recording session at Santa Barbara Sound Design.
But runner-up Blake Brundy of Lompoc High School won training sessions from judge Wendy Kurtzman, and Dylan Ortega of Santa Ynez High won a spot at the Durango Songwriter Expo next week.
The evening’s emotions ran high as supporters for every entrant packed the audience. But as the 10 finalists took the stage after the opening number — with all 10 plus two alternates singing Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” backed by dancers — all had one song to win over the judges and the crowd.
Every single singer sang with confidence and aplomb. There were no duds like one sees on network television talent shows and the judges, when asked, offered encouragement, not criticism.
Kaitlyn Chui of Cabrillo High began the evening soulfully, while Cheyanne Yang of Dos Pueblos sang Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All,” followed by Carpinteria High’s Azalea Kemp going the Broadway route with “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from “Funny Girl.”
Teen Star brings in all genres, and the judges have to look beyond them to make their decisions.
Zo” Lynn Burritt of Cabrillo High sang Miranda Lambert’s country hit “Mama’s Broken Heart” while Gwennie McInnes of Dos Pueblos chose Paolo Nutini’s “New Shoes.”
For the judges, questions arose about how teenagers could sell these songs of maturity and experience. Some felt that the teens were incarnations of their idols, others weren’t so sure they had pulled it off.
Dylan, who sported a cowboy hat and dedicated his song to his father, who died three years ago, was most at ease in front of the microphone and judging from the sound from the audience, had many, many fans.
Blake won over the crowd with a wild and extravagant “Try a Little Tenderness,” giving Otis Redding a run for his money.
Santa Ynez’s Olivia Huffman convinced everybody that she knew the pain in her Etta James cover, and Santa Barbara High’s Isabella Illescas sang “All About That Bass” with an empowered stance.
But Sydney was last and wowed with an honest reading of Radiohead’s “Creep,” which pared back the theatrics and just delivered the emotion.
After intermission, Blake, Dylan and Sydney made the semifinal and returned for one song each: Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Randy Travis’ “I Told You So,” and Billy Joel’s “Vienna.” Three completely different genres and three completely different performances were seen on stage.
While the judges deliberated, last year’s winner, Mary Grace Langhorne returned to the stage. Last year she was in a wheelchair. This year she walked upright, having conquered the ailment that had stricken her two years previous, and she delivered a new jazzy torch song that she had co-written.
“I didn’t think I’d be here,” she said, “without the singing and love of Teen Star.”
And then the winners were announced, and a stunned Sydney Shalhoob had only a brief moment to thank the many family and friends who had come out to support her.
In one year, Sydney will return to check in on the year that she is about to have, and to encourage the seventh Teen Star finalist of 2016.