Theater is alive and well in high schools around the Fredericksburg region, and the Riverside Theater Foundation wants to celebrate that.

The foundation handed out the first ever Riverside Awards for Excellence in High School Musical Theater Monday night at the Riverside Center for the Performing Arts in southern Stafford County.

Capturing the night’s biggest award—Best Musical—was Fredericksburg Christian School’s production of “The Music Man.

“This is such an honor,” said Cameron Barrett, who played Marian Paroo in the FCS musical and accepted the award along with others from the production. “Our world is broken. But music and theater can bring us back together and help make all our lives a little better.”

Sally Struthers, Emmy Award-winning actress and star of TV shows “All in the Family” and “Gillmore Girls,” presented the top award.

“What a wonderful evening!” said Struthers, who is currently starring in “Always ... Patsy Cline” at Riverside. “It’s so exciting to me that young people still want to be part of the performing arts.”

Struthers said she was impressed with all of the competing productions from eight different area schools. Shows included “Shrek The Musical,” “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Legally Blonde, Jr.” and “James and the Giant Peach,” among others.

“Me and my friends thought we were really cool doing ‘Our Town’ back in the 1960s,” she said. “But you can’t beat musical theater, and all this amazing hard work you’re doing here in Fredericksburg.”

With a goal of recognizing, rewarding and encouraging talent and achievement in musical theater among high school students throughout the area, the Riverside Foundation for the Performing Arts has been working for several years to raise funds and get an awards program started.

“There is an abundance of talent throughout this area—so many talented, hard-working kids,” said Riverside’s Producing Artistic Director Patrick A’Hearn, who serves on the Foundation board. “I think it’s important to honor these kids because they are the future, and we want to do what we can to help theater and the performing arts stay strong.”

Information was sent last fall to high school principals and drama instructors across the region by Foundation Director Colleen Beirne, who organized the Riverside Awards. Eight responded and their schools were the ones that competed in this year’s awards.

Judges were selected and have been viewing productions at the schools since the beginning of the school year, assigning points in a variety of categories, from hair and makeup, to choreography and scenic design, to best actor and actress—20 awards all together.

“We hired an accountant who tallied up the numbers, giving us our nominees and winners,” Beirne said.

Stafford High’s production of “James and the Giant Peach” earned seven awards, and Fredericksburg Christian’s “The Music Man” earned six awards.

In addition to Struthers, presenters included Carter Calvert, a Broadway star playing the title role in Riverside’s Patsy Cline show; Fredericksburg Mayor Mary Katherine Greenlaw, state Del. Mark Cole, Stafford County Supervisor Gary Snellings, radio show hosts Dee Daniels (B101.5) and Christal Blue (Thunder 104.5), among others.

American blues singer Gaye Adegbalola presented the award for Best Musical Direction.

“Working in the arts is a tough row to hoe, but there’s nothing better,” Adegbalola said. “You have to be pompous enough to believe you have something good to give to the world, and then work to make it happen.”

Bobby Hebert, who performs at the Virginia Renaissance Faire, practically stole the show as presenter of the Best Hair and Makeup award, delivering his lines in Shakespearean verse and expressing the value of his category with a Cossack dance.

But he was then outdone by Stafford County Sheriff’s Lt. Deuntay Diggs, known as The Dancing Deputy, who demonstrated his superior abilities while presenting the award for Best Choreography.

Jessica Marschall of Marschall Accounting, who tallied the winners, presented the award for Best Stage and Technical Execution. Thanks to Marschall’s own technical expertise, no envelope faux pas occurred during the evening.

“It was really a very simple process,” Marschall said of the task. “I’m glad to have helped with this fantastic opportunity for these young people—such a great accomplishment they can put on college applications.”

Presenting the award for Best Supporting Actress was Janet Gullickson, president of Germanna Community College, who surprised the audience by announcing the school would offer $500 scholarships to two high school students who participated in the Riverside Awards competition and plan to attend Germanna as full-time students.

“I am amazed at the level of talent being displayed on the stage this evening,” Gullickson said. “I’m kind of blown away!”

Eight musical pieces were performed during Monday’s ceremony. Nominees for best actor and actress sang medleys of songs from their musicals and each school nominated for Best Musical performed a representative song.

The opening and closing numbers—“I Wanna Be A Show Stopper,” by Kander and Ebb, and an original song by Riverside founder Rollin E. Wehman titled “Growing Up Awesomely”—included a mix of all the performers.

A’Hearn presented the Rollin E. Wehman Award in honor of the man who started the Riverside Dinner Theater 20 years ago this month.

“This award is given to a student who exemplifies true passion for musical theater, working to improve all aspects of the performing arts—a team player who helps those around him utilize and increase their own talents,” A’Hearn said. “Rollin believed in having a sense of purpose, of excellence, and I’ve watched the winning student living these qualities as we’ve worked on this production over the last week.”

Jeffrey Bare of Colonial Forge High School, who played the title role in his school’s production of “Shrek: The Musical,” was the recipient of the award. His name will be the first on a permanent plaque to be displayed in the entryway of the Riverside Center to recognize him and future winners.

The Riverside Scholarship of $1,000 was given to Natalie Mullanaphy of Stafford High School. To qualify, applicants had to be a graduating senior and participant of the Riverside Awards, who plans to major in a theatre-related field in college, maintained a cumulative 3.0 GPA or higher, and participated in theatrical activities through most of their high school career.

“I’m so incredibly thrilled to be given this scholarship,” Mullanaphy said as she accepted the award. “Really everyone who has helped me along the way has made this possible—thanks to all of you!”

Beirne said the hope of the nonprofit foundation is to improve the awards each year in the future.

“We rely on donations from community members and local companies to keep programs like this going,” she said. “We hope people will recognize the value of the arts in all our lives, and how much these students put their heart and soul into this work. They are the leaders of tomorrow—we want to put them on a path that helps them get there.”

Emily Jennings: 540/735-1975

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