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Pittsburgh CAPA, Avonworth and Thomas Jefferson High Schools Lead the Way at 2024 Gene Kelly Awards

By SHARON EBERSON

Pittsburgh CLO’s 33rd annual Gene Kelly Awards for Excellence in High School Musical Theater was a night to celebrate arts education, feel school and community pride, experience cheering loud enough to rock a stadium and revel in the talent that flows throughout Allegheny County.

Winners at Saturday night’s awards ceremony and showcase were chosen from among 33 participating high schools, with Avonworth High School’s production of Into the Woods and Thomas Jefferson High School’s Disney’s Beauty and the Beast receiving six awards, including Best Musical in Budget Level II and IV, respectively. 

Best Musical winner Avonworth High School performs a scene from Into the Woods at the 2024 Gene Kelly Awards on May 25. (Image: Archie Carpenter)

In most categories, awards are bestowed in four budget levels, “ensuring that all schools, whether public and private and no matter their resources, have an equal opportunity to participate and win.” 

The other 2024 Best Musical winners were St. Joseph High School (Level 1) and Westinghouse Arts Academy (Level III). 

Pittsburgh CAPA led the way in individual acting, taking three of the four categories: Kai Sachon won Best Actor for his riveting performance in the title role of Sweeney Todd, and castmates Rissa Williams and Eamonn McElfresh won the Supporting Actress and Actor categories.

Kai Sachon of Pittsburgh CAPA and Emma Hopf of North Hills are the 2024 Gene Kelly Awards Best Actor and Actress. (Images: Archie Carpenter)

Emma Hopf, portraying William “Magic Foot” Barfee in North Hills High School’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, was overcome with emotion upon winning Best Actress. The two top actors are eligibleto head to New York next month for the National High School Musical Theatre Awards, also known as the Jimmys

In 2009, PLCO co-created the national Jimmy Awards with the Nederlander Alliances, offering professional guidance and Broadway experiences to winning actors from cities nationwide. This year’s Jimmys will be held on June 24, 2024, at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre.

Pittsburgh CLO launched the Gene Kelly Awards in 1991, making it “the nation’s oldest, most comprehensive  regional awards program.” Patterned after the Tony Awards, it includes performances by the nominated schools, top actor and actress medleys, and blockbuster opening and closing numbers that in 2024 showcased the quality of talent in Allegheny County. 

Woodland Hills High performs a number from the pilot production
of the Wonderland musical at the Kellys. (Image: Sharon Eberson)

One of the most intriguing offerings of the night was by Woodland Hills, performing a number from a pilot production of the musical Wonderland.

Mayor Ed Gainey was on hand with a proclamation to acknowledge PCLO’s role as a leader in youth arts programs, and Saturday’s event also was a showcase for the CLO Orchestra, led by Robert Neumeyer, and technical expertise in lighting, projections and sound that put the student artists on equal footing with the pros, whose footsteps many aspire to follow. 

A few talented teens got a leg up on their dreams when the Kellys presented over $75,000 in scholarships, including to college-bound seniors Ava Delio (Point Park University’s Conservatory of Performing Arts), Alexis Yunk (Robert Morris University) and Brylee Hendry and Jayla Chase (Seton Hill University). 

The Pittsburgh CLO Ambassadors awarded scholarships to three college-bound students who will be pursuing a major outside of the arts: Isabel Concepcion, Paulina  Sanchez and Lillian Stalewski, and Gene Kelly Cash Scholarships were awarded to high school seniors who have been accepted to a school for the performing or technical arts: Hope Johnson, Helena Marshall, Max Peluso and Kai Sachon. 

2024 Best Actor Kai Sachon (center), with Kelly nominees including his
Pittsburgh CAPA castmates and supporting actor winners Eamonn McElfresh
and Rissa Williams. (Image: Sharon Eberson)

During the Best Actor medley, nominee Peluso, out of Sewickley Academy, gave an endearing hint of his stint as Don Lockwood – the Gene Kelly role in Singin’ in the Rain. 

Naming the awards for Kelly – who rewrote the book on dance in Hollywood musicals after growing up in East Liberty and attending the University of Pittsburgh – started the trend of performing arts heroes lending their names to similar programs in their hometowns. 

The always glamorous Patricia Ward Kelly, Gene Kelly’s widow, returned to the show as she has most years, mingling and posing for pictures with starstruck teens in the lobby before the show. 

Before announcing the Best Musical awards, she spoke of how her husband had dreams of being a Pirates shortstop or a hockey player (before there was a Pittsburgh pro team), and how his unique brand of athleticism and grace reshaped movie musicals.

“Since there was no model for this type of movement, he turned to his love of sports, particularly hockey and baseball,” she said. “You can see it in the wide open steps and his broad, low-to-the-ground stance. That was the unique style that he created, athletic and graceful. Since Gene set the stage for gracefulness, I thought I would take it one step further tonight and ask you to make it part of your daily lives. … I don’t mean this just in movement. I mean it in the way that you conduct yourselves. You can be graceful in all that you do, in the way that you connect with people, the way that you follow your journey in your kindness, in empathy and consideration that you show in every way.”

Thomas Jefferson High School wins Best Musical in Budget Level IV with a production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. (image: Sharon Eberson)

2024 GENE KELLY AWARD WINNERS

BEST ACTOR: Kai Sachon as Sweeney Todd, SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12

BEST ACTRESS: Emma Hopf as William Barfee, THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, North Hills High School

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Eamonn McElfresh as Tobias Ragg, SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Rissa Williams as Beggar Woman SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12

BEST MUSICAL

Budget Level I: Saint Joseph High School, Disney’s TARZAN

Budget Level II: Avonworth High School, INTO THE WOODS

Budget Level III: Westinghouse Arts Academy, CHICAGO: Teen Edition

Budget Level IV: Thomas Jefferson High School, Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

BEST SCENIC DESIGN

Budget Level I: Bishop Canevin High School, ALL SHOOK UP (School Edition)

Budget Level II: Avonworth High School, INTO THE WOODS

Budget Level III: Elizabeth Forward High School, BIG FISH

Budget Level IV: Pine-Richland High School, MAMMA MIA!

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Budget Level I: Saint Joseph High School, DISNEY’s TARZAN

Budget Level II: Avonworth High School, INTO THE WOODS

Budget Level III: Westinghouse Arts Academy, CHICAGO: Teen Edition

Budget Level IV: Woodland Hills High School, WONDERLAND Pilot Production

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN

Budget Level I: Shady Side Academy Senior School, ZOMBIE PROM

Budget Level II: Avonworth High School, INTO THE WOODS

Budget Level III: Westinghouse Arts Academy, CHICAGO: Teen Edition

Budget Level IV: Thomas Jefferson High School, Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

BEST VOCAL ENSEMBLE

Budget Level I: Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA!

Budget Level II: Avonworth High School, INTO THE WOODS

Budget Level III: Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET

Budget Level IV: Thomas Jefferson High School, Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

BEST DANCE ENSEMBLE

Budget Level I: Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA!

Budget Level II: West Allegheny High School, BYE BYE BIRDIE

Budget Level III: Westinghouse Arts Academy, CHICAGO: Teen Edition

Budget Level IV: Hampton High School, TUCK EVERLASTING

BEST CREW/TECHNICAL EXECUTION

Budget Level I: Shady Side Academy Senior School, ZOMBIE PROM

Budget Level II: Avonworth High School, INTO THE WOODS

Budget Level III: North Hills High School, THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE

Budget Level IV: Thomas Jefferson High School, Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

BEST STUDENT ORCHESTRA: Pine-Richland High School, MAMMA MIA!

OUTSTANDING STUDENT ARTIST: Brady Bandik, Lighting Designer, Thomas Jefferson High School

CHARLES GRAY AWARD for Special Achievement in Arts Education: Pittsburgh Carmalt Pre K-8

KELLY CRITICS AWARD: Julie Evanchak,  Thomas Jefferson High School

2024 Gene Kelly Awards closing number.
33rd Gene Kelly Awards Names 2024 Nominees, Representing 33 Allegheny County High Schools