Review: The Jimmy Awards Deliver a Parade of Optimism in a Triumphant Homecoming
The National High School Musical Theatre Awards returned to the Minskoff Theatre for the first time since 2019.
Broadway shows have been open since the fall, we had an old-fashioned Tony Awards earlier this month, and the tortured ghost of the 2019-20 season is finally resting in peace. And yet, it wasn't until last night, when this year's cohort of Jimmy Award nominees stormed the Minskoff stage, that it truly felt like spring had returned to Broadway.
The Jimmy Awards — named after producer James L. Nederlander and formally known as the National High School Musical Theatre Awards — were canceled in 2020 at the start of the pandemic, and returned with a virtual edition in 2021, in which director Van Kaplan and choreographer Kiesha Lalama did their best to keep the Jimmys' spirit of community and collaboration alive through computer screens. The result was an impressive display of both fortitude and talent (as usual). But it also showed just how irreplaceable the live experience is for the students who get to spend a week in New York City with likeminded teens and mentors, and for the families who get to scream for them in one of Broadway's biggest houses.
Broadway veteran Kate Reinders (Something Rotten!, Beautiful) made a fitting host for the Jimmys' in-person return. Occasionally fighting back tears (a regular occurrence at the Jimmy Awards), she led a smooth ceremony while alternating between reflections on her own stage career and her bubbly TV persona Miss Jenn, the quirky but heartwarming drama teacher she plays on Disney Plus's High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. No major changes were made to the traditional Jimmys format since last taking the stage three years ago, save a few tweaks that streamlined all of the corporate thanks and the nominees' introductions during their medley performances (applause adds at least a half hour to the show's run time — think Wicked-meets-school-assembly).
An opening number arranged by Geoffrey Ko sampled scores from this past season including A Strange Loop, Six, and Paradise Square. Lalama, whose choreography last year was confined to a Zoom box, returned to its old exciting mathematical precision, turning a mass of differently sized teenagers into the well-oiled machine you and your tortured parents could have only dreamed of for your own school performances. This was followed by four character medleys (newly mixed-gender) that blended snippets of the students' winning high school roles, as well as two larger medleys — one celebrating the work of female composers (directed and choreographed by Dan Knechtges) and the other honoring the legacy of Stephen Sondheim (directed and choreographed by Stephanie Pope Lofgren).
The character medleys, arranged by Bobby Neumeyer, didn't necessarily give the students' the showiest vocal moments, but their tongue-in-cheek blueprints were perfectly tailored for the crowd of musical theater nerds they were serving. In the first medley, we had a SpongeBob (semi-finalist Landry Barker giving a performance Ethan Slater would be proud of) responding to The Stoker from Titanic (Sean Kato, doing right by Brian d'Arcy James). The final medley, in turn, had Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella (a lovely Ava Berutti) join in sardonic conversation with Sondheim's Cinderella (finalist Sophie Pollono, who later blew the roof off the Minskoff with a solo performance of Funny Girl's "The Music That Makes Me Dance").
Intermission rang in the return of my favorite Jimmys tradition — debating your favorites and earnestly studying your programs in a way I can only imagine sports folk prepare for a fantasy football draft. Sixteen semi-finalists were then selected and quickly whittled down to eight finalists — four men and four women who performed solos to vie for the Best Actor and Best Actress awards and scholarships worth a whopping $25,000.
In a delightful turn of events for composer Jason Robert Brown (and the upcoming City Center production), the solo portion turned into a Parade tribute hour, with three of the finalists performing selections from the Tony-winning score (Best Actor Nicholas Barrón won with "This Is Not Over Yet", while Joshua Thompson performed "It's Hard to Speak my Heart", and Symoné Spencer delivered an impassioned "You Don't Know This Man").
Filling out the men's side were Thomas Beeker performing "Wondering" from Jason Robert Brown's The Bridges of Madison County, and Dakota Lee Renteria performing "Donny Novitski" from Bandstand. Kendall Becerra came out on top on the women's side, performing "Breathe" from In the Heights and besting what felt like a revolving door of showstopping numbers from fellow female finalists including the aforementioned Pollono and Spencer, as well as Anna Zavelson, who performed "Higher" from the musical Allegiance.
Acceptance speeches and a closing number — featuring even more Jason Robert Brown in the form of Mr. Saturday Night's peppy finale "Stick Around" — put a button on the evening. And to my great relief, I can officially attest that three years of absence has not robbed the Jimmy Awards of its magical happiness tonic. It's been a big week for cynicism, but the Jimmys, without fail, leave you buzzing with the romantic certainty that musical theater can indeed change the world. But can it really? you ask. Stick around.