A scene from Mount Desert Island High School's state award-winning show "The Machine." PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS DOUGHTERY

MDI High show choir best in Maine

MILLINOCKET — Bronwyn Kortge’s show choir from Mount Desert High School has done it again. For the umpteenth year, they have brought home the title of Division I state champions from the State Vocal Jazz competitions.

This year, they took top honors Saturday night with their stunning performance of “The Machine.” And once again, this choir’s concept and its execution have redefined the term “show choir.”

At a packed show choir extravaganza before competition, Kortge acknowledged that she does have a bit of an advantage over other Maine schools in that she has an unprecedented four middle school choirs – and Tremont is launching another one soon – feeding into the one high school. She takes full advantage of that abundance of seasoned talent.

While they have proven they can do wonders with standard Broadway fare, such as “The Lion King,” more recently they have tackled musical styles and compositions that range from medieval Gregorian chant to contemporary classical to heavy metal to techno rock for their extraordinary mash-ups. Nor do they confine themselves to the English oeuvre. Kortge credits student pit band director Jack Sasner for helping her develop this year’s concept.

In addition to bringing home the winning trophy, individual performances by Ethan Craigo and Peter Jacobson were singled out for special honors.

Their vocal duel to the death at the climax of the “The Machine,” ending with Jacobson’s transformation from rebel to tyrant, may well be remembered as the most chilling moment ever seen at a high school song competition.

But really, it is the profound depth of talent and commitment of the entire cast that makes this such a winning package. That includes Nathan Vonder Haar’s plaintive opening as an outsider about to be enfolded by robotic anemone-like tentacles and delivered into the grinding maw of The Machine. It includes Mary Paola’s heart-piercing wonder at discovering in the “Mr. Roboto” interlude that she is not all robot, but flesh and blood, as much an acting performance as a vocal one. It also is epitomized by Natalie Rogers’ plea for recognition in “Sympathy 3000-21”; the heavy metal cry of Mary Ellen Sharp and Lucas Wood in “Breaking Out and Breaking Down,” and the two perfectly discordant trios of Ben Hagle, Teddy Geary and Rye Murray, and Thistle Swann, Meghan McDunnah and Jasmine Bender. All these separate elements and the full chorus, backed by an incredible pit band, delivering such spine-tingling fare as Carl Orff’s “O’Fortuna,” Jochen Flachs’ “Fists of Steel” and Pink Floyd’s titular “The Machine,” contributed to the well-deserved win. And keep in mind, they danced in near lock step precision throughout, which earned them yet another award for the high school’s team of teacher and student choreographers. Wow, just wow!

Which pretty much sums up the judges’ responses.

They all commented profusely on the complexity and strength of the vocals and expert performances. The demanding nature of the program also impressed them, as did the intensity and drama involved in the singing, acting and choreography, and how difficult it is to sustain that kind of energy and power for the duration.

“Cool, very VERY cool,” one judge wrote again and again in her notes.

During rehearsals, Kortge is an extremely hands-on director, practically dancing and singing every step and note of the program along with her students. She stops only to make corrections and call out suggestions to the band. But all that ends at performance time when she says she prefers to disappear into the crowd and let her kids do their thing.

“In the evening, I took a seat just like an audience member,” Kortge said the morning after. “And it felt like I had bought front-row center seats to some new musical on Broadway. It was incredible, and all I could do was sit there in the best seat in the house letting the power of their performance wash over me – and giggle euphorically. It was stunning, and I was just in awe of them.”

The high school’s Trojan Trebs, which performed in Division II, brought home a one rating for their excellent performance of “Oh My Lorde.”

Middle schools

If the high school win was pretty much a given, another bonus may have been tiny Trenton Elementary taking second place in the Middle School Division II. With the acquisition of their new director Mary de Koning, the Trentones have taken a great leap forward. Their “Matilda” was a superb choice of show for middle school kids, as it is age-appropriate and requires some serious attitude to pull it off. These youngsters had everything needed in spades, and they did it on scooters, and with perfect British accents to boot!

Julianna Serrato picked up a well-deserved vocal honor for her poignant solo “Quiet.”

Pemetic School, which took third place in that division for its ‘Lion King,” also had three of the finest voices in the competition. Quentin Pileggi and September Murray earned vocal honors for their haunting duet “Endless Night,” and Caroline Musson, a weensy bit of a thing who packs a powerful vocal punch, closed out the show in grand style with “He Lives in You.”

Although Conners-Emerson/MDES Show Stoppers’ “Dorothy in the Emerald Isle” did not place in the top three for Division I middle schools, Oriahnna Kelley earned vocal recognition for her sweet soprano turn as Glinda, and the whole choir did a fine job with some complicated choreography that featured Irish step dancing.

Eva Bonsey was an adorable Dorothy, and her stage presence is so confident that she appears to have born to hold a microphone. Nellie Horvath, Carolyn Graber and Gilbert Isaacs were simply terrific as the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion. That the Showstoppers didn’t place in the top three is merely a reflection on how tough the competition in that division is.

Correction: An earlier version of this article contained several errors. The text has been corrected.


Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.

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