Time to shine: Playhouse Square's Dazzle Awards build community for high school performing artists

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Sports and athletes often get the lion’s share of attention at the average American high school. Top-performing athletes receive awards and additional honors that recognize their accomplishments on the field, court, or pitch.

While student-athletes deserve their accolades, an annual program hosted by Playhouse Square ensures that the standouts in the local high school arts scene get time in the spotlight as well.

The Dazzle Awards honor arts education along with excellence in musical theater. A year’s worth of professional classes and workshops will culminate with an awards program at KeyBank State Theatre this Saturday, May 20, highlighting student achievement as well as potential career opportunities in the industry.

“Students can make a living in the performing arts—it’s a valid vocation that they should be encouraged to pursue,” says Daniel Hahn, vice president of education at Playhouse Square. “When students see a Broadway show, they can say ‘That’s something I can do.’ They can see themselves on stage, or backstage running lights, or working with costumes. Students should be able to achieve those dreams.”

More than 200 students from 32 Northeast Ohio schools will take center stage this weekend in the State Theatre for a fun-filled celebration of musical theater and student-led performances. Awards will be bestowed in 12 categories—from acting to music to best-in-show technical execution.

Bringing attention to the region’s dream-makers is an easy call for Playhouse Square, notes Hahn.

“Schools get a lot of attention for sports,” Hahn says. “My son plays travel baseball, so I get it. But my son’s twin is a musician, so it’s important for arts kids to shine, too. This program elevates and celebrates those students. That’s hugely important.”

2022 Dazzle Awards2022 Dazzle AwardsNot just a hobby

Launched in 2015, the Dazzle Awards returned in-person in 2022 after two years of pandemic- driven online programming. New York-based director and choreographer Connor Gallagher is returning to lead the Dazzle Awards production team for this year’s disco-themed show, which he deems as the “Super Bowl” for regional student theater.

“The Dazzle Awards give students the opportunity to build community and something similar to a professional experience,” says Gallagher, best known for his work with the globally renowned “Beetlejuice” musical. “When I was a theater kid, I was never given this level of attention or respect. This event is a great springboard for students.”

Although fun is the centerpiece of the ceremony, there are real-life stakes to consider as well, Gallagher adds. Regional winners of the best actor and actress categories will represent Northeast Ohio at The National High School Musical Theatre Awards—a program that includes intensive training and rehearsals with Broadway professionals.  

Lutheran West in Rocky River puts on a fall play and spring musical every year. A spring 2023 production of “The Music Man” earned the school’s arts program five Dazzle Award nominations—part of a year that included dance, vocal, acting, and technical master classes from touring Broadway professionals.

Young learners can also serve as apprentices at the ceremony, either backstage or in the orchestra pit. A bit of priceless first-hand experience that has put stars in more than a few eyes, says Lutheran West drama director Adam Zehnder.

“This is something I could never give the kids personally, but it helps them believe they can do anything they put their minds to,” says Zehnder. “It’s showing real-world applications for something that might be considered a hobby or extracurricular activity.”

Dazzle Awards 2023 rehearsalDazzle Awards 2023 rehearsalTime for a party

The ceremony itself does not skimp on the usual award show pomp and circumstance. Student participants walk an actual red carpet before taking the stage, with teenage reporters asking questions for the Playhouse Square YouTube channel.

Public and private high schools throughout the region are invited to participate in the Dazzle Awards program. Mayfield High School joined the party in 2017, with student Daniel Blum winning best actor in 2022 for his role as Bobby Strong in “Urinetown.”  

Exposure to the arts outside of a high-school bubble is even more important than a trophy, notes

Larry Braun, director of fall and spring musicals at Mayfield.

“We have always told students that while it’s great to be nominated, we are participating in master classes and the chance to collaborate with students from all over the region,” Braun says. “The program allows us to perform alongside other students who are just as passionate about musical theater.”

In both programing and its year-end ceremony, the Dazzle Awards showcase area talent while developing participants’ interpersonal skills. The program is also a microcosm of a local arts landscape that deserves more attention, says event choreographer Gallagher.

“I’m blown away by Cleveland’s dedication to the arts,” Gallagher says. “Every time I come back here, I feel like the community is getting bigger and bigger. “Outside of New York and Chicago, you don’t have cultural hubs where the arts are embraced.”

Gallagher is further thrilled to see an energetic group of students unafraid to be fabulous.

“Theater is a place where community is built,” says Gallagher. “Kids who may not be into sports find a home in the arts, and a place to express themselves. I like working with talent that’s excited to learn.”

The 2023 Dazzle Awards take place this Saturday, May 20 at the KeyBank State Theatre. Tickets are $25 and upper level seats are still available.

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Crain’s Cleveland Business, Ideastream, and Middle Market Growth. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.