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Highlands Show Choir takes New York City by storm

| Sunday, May 10, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Highlands High School Variations Show Choir perform at the 9/11 Empty Sky Memorial, near Ellis Island in New York City.
Highlands High School Variations Show Choir members perform in New York City's Central Park.

Highlands High School Variations Show Choir took a big bite out of the Big Apple with a recent three-day performance and educational field trip to New York City.

Fifty-two choral students held yearlong fundraisers to finance their musically themed NYC itinerary.

The trip was reinstated this year by Michael Zeiler, Highland's choir and Variations director. The trip was made possible with the help of Highlands Drama Booster Club.

He plans on offering the New York City trip bi-annually.

“The best education is enhanced by travel and hands-on experience,” Zeiler says. “You can't learn performing from a book — you have to experience it.”

More than just your average sightseeing trip, students performed in Central Park and at the 9/11 Empty Sky Memorial in New Jersey, near Ellis Island.

The Variations Choir rehearsed for months, prepping for their first performance outside of the Alle-Kiski valley area.

“The students performed songs with a NYC theme — ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,' the theme song from ‘New York, New York,' ‘New York State of Mind,' ‘Fame' and ‘Big City Beat',” Zeiler says. “It was important to me to give them this experience; performing in a major city.”

Senior Brandon Johnson was thrilled to end his high-school career at Highlands accompanying the choir on trumpet and piano in New York.

“Brandon played the trumpet when the choir sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner' and he played the piano accompaniment for ‘New York State of Mind',” Zeiler says.

“I would describe my trip as perfection,” Johnson says. “I loved seeing iconic landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the 9/11 Memorial.”

For the 34 students visiting New York for the first time ever; the trip was anxiously anticipated.

Josephine Vance, a freshman, was a bit nervous performing for complete strangers on her first trip to New York.

“It was cool and nervous at the same time performing,” Vance says. “I loved singing the national anthem in Central Park with a sax player. This trip taught me that there is so much more out there beyond Natrona Heights and Pittsburgh and that there are dreams to be reached.”

Patty Solar, Highlands Drama Booster president and one of the 21 chaperones, loved seeing the students experience New York.

“Our schedule was so busy — 17-hour days — we saw so much of Manhattan, and I am so thankful to be involved with this musical program and happy our district is so supportive of the arts,” she says.

Solar says the students were particularly affected by their visit to the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum.

“It was an eye-opening and compelling experience for the students seeing the memorial,” she says.

Trip highlights also included an early morning visit to the “Today Show” set, visiting St. Paul's Chapel, Times Square and the Empire State Building, sightseeing in Chinatown and Little Italy, a musical-themed dinner at Ellen's Stardust Diner on Broadway, two Broadway shows (“Phantom of the Opera” and “Aladdin”), and a ferry trip to Ellis Island.

Manhattan is an island just over 13 miles long, and the Highlands Variations crew tried their hardest to leave their footprints on most of it.

The group even went “local” — riding the subway a few times and really experiencing the day-to-day vibe of New York.

“My biggest surprise was the subway, it was dirty and crowded,” says first-time visitor Kristiona Miller, a freshman.

Subway grime aside, Miller cherished her trip and performing in New York. “We sounded great, and we got a lot of applause from the strangers watching us. Performing is the most exhilarating thing I do, and I would love to do this again.”

While “Phantom of the Opera” was an optional choice on the trip itinerary, the entire group experienced “Aladdin” on Broadway.

The show, currently running with its original Tony-award-winning cast, left the students, teachers and chaperones impressed and amazed.

Robert Alcantar, a junior, was excited to see his first Broadway show.

“ ‘Aladdin' didn't disappoint,” Alcantar says, “In fact, it was completely overwhelming and I was in total awe of the show and meeting the cast afterwards. I could watch ‘Aladdin' over and over and over.”

During Act 1 of “Aladdin,” the entire theater interrupted the show with thunderous applause and a standing ovation after the song “Friend Like Me” sung by James Monroe Iglehart in the role of Genie.

Later backstage, the cast voiced their appreciation of the audience's enthusiasm to Zeiler and his students. “They said they hadn't had a standing ovation like that in months,” Zeiler says. “It was hands down the best performance I have ever seen.”

“I was completely blown away by ‘Aladdin,'” says Marina Santicola, a sophomore. “Afterward, we waited at the stage door to meet some of the cast members from the show, and it was inspiring to congratulate and talk to the actors about the musical. This was a memory of a lifetime for me.”

Ellis Island was an added treat for Santicola.

“I had never gone there, and I looked up my family's name in the registry and found it. Researching my family's history and walking the same halls that my grandparents walked was a big surprise for me.”

“This trip was a wonderful opportunity for our students,” says Highlands Superintendent Michael Bjalonok. “They performed in New York and had a full itinerary throughout Manhattan that crossed all areas of curriculum.

“Through Mr. Zeiler's efforts, our choral program has become a premier program.”

Elizabeth Venesky, a sophomore, describes her weekend as “unforgettable.”

“Not many people can say they performed in New York, and it is an honor to say that I did,” Venesky says. “Strangers walking by would just stop and listen; it was truly the best moment.”

Joyce Hanz is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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