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Gene Kelly Awards give Pittsburgh students a shot at the big time

“Quality and art doesn’t necessarily have to come from a big budget and money.”

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In the Broadway musical 9 to 5, three women kidnap their sexist, egotistical boss before taking charge of his company. The plot makes for a lot of laughs, but for Pittsburgh sophomore Bryce Chisom, who played one of the three women in Obama Academy’s adaptation of the musical this spring, it’s also a story of empowerment.

“Seeing that three women did this all by themselves,” says Chisom, “seeing how they took action over such a powerful man was really inspiring.”

Chisom is among the nine Pittsburgh Public Schools students nominated in this year’s Gene Kelly Awards, a regional competition (named for the famed Pittsburgh-born entertainer) that recognizes student musicals in the Pittsburgh area. Winners will be announced at an event at the Benedum Center on May 28.

“It was really amazing [to be nominated],” says Chisom. “I actually didn’t believe it. I started bursting out in tears when I found out. I was really excited.”

The students nominated this year are part of a 26-year tradition. Some past awardees from the region, like actor Zachary Quinto (Star Trek), have gone on to successful careers on Broadway and in television and film.

“We definitely have a mission here, and it’s really about changing lives,” says Kiesha Lalama, director of the Gene Kelly Awards. “In the 26 years the Kellys have been going on, I continue to hear the stories over and over again about the positive impact it’s had on people’s lives.”

That’s especially true for students in PPS, who have consistently been nominated in their division year after year despite the less-than-stellar reputation urban school districts tend to have. The annual event gives PPS students a chance to shine, and more importantly, musical-theater supporters say, they’re learning skills they can’t find in the classroom.  

“The hours and hours they put into these performances — it shows their dedication, their work ethic, their passion,” says Lalama. “I think musical theater brings a sense of community, a sense of respect and value for one another. It goes well beyond developing performance skills. It really helps kids with social development and life skills.”

Nearly 30 schools face off in this year’s Kelly Awards. They’re broken into divisions based on the estimated budget for their musicals, so that schools in low-income communities aren’t wiped out by more affluent schools in the suburbs. 

“Some schools have very large budgets and other schools are working with pennies, scraping them together to make it work,” says Lalama. “We want to make it as fair as possible, making sure we are comparing apples to apples and oranges to oranges.”

Mindy Rossi-Stabler, CAPA High School’s theater coordinator, says her students notice the difference in budget between their school and others. But instead of being jealous, she says they feel camaraderie with competing schools.  

“They see the difference, especially in budget, when the other kids come with monogrammed garment bags for their costumes,” says Rossi-Stabler. “Public schools just don’t have that kind of money. It’s good for them to be exposed to that, but also to understand that quality and art doesn’t necessarily have to come from a big budget and money. We’re obviously in the low-budget [category] at the Kellys every year. That doesn’t mean we don’t put out a good product.”

Despite its budget, CAPA is consistently nominated and awarded at the Kellys, thanks in no small part to its musical-theater program. But Rossi-Stabler says the importance of musical theater and the arts should extend beyond CAPA.

“We’re lucky at CAPA because this is what we concentrate on, but the other schools still put on really good products,” says Rossi-Stabler. “Throughout the public schools, the more arts we can give these kids, I think the better off they all are. The most successful people have really had a basis in some kind of art during their educational career.”

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