H.B. High performing arts academy wins 20 National Youth Arts Awards

Huntington Beach High School Academy for the Performing Arts students Cole Wachman, Lillian Buonocore and Kelsey Kato, from left, are among the top winners of this year’s National Youth Arts Awards.
(Brittany Woolsey, HB Independent)

There are two sides to 17-year-old Kelsey Kato. There’s the outspoken side, and then there’s the quiet, shy side.

His ability to showcase both sides of his personality in two different productions helped the Huntington Beach High School senior be recognized as Artist of the Year at the National Youth Arts Awards. The title earned him a scholarship and a trip to New York City to represent Southern California during the weeklong Broadway Artists Alliance program in July.

Kelsey was honored for roles this year that included the outspoken, conniving Engineer in “Miss Saigon” and the quiet, in-the-closet Rod in the comedic “Avenue Q.” He said he was humbled by his awards and proud that he could pull off such dynamic characters.

“The text and music that the writers gave the Engineer in ‘Miss Saigon’ is just so cool,” said Kelsey, who plans to study musical theater at UCLA. “I really liked working on that role because I liked playing the wise guy and getting clues from the music about his harshness. Infusing that into outside character work, I feel like, in terms of that kind of lesson, the Engineer was my favorite part. But in terms of having fun and out-there character work, Rod in ‘Avenue Q’ was also great.”


Kelsey was one of several student actors from Huntington Beach High School’s Academy for the Performing Arts who contributed to the APA winning 20 National Youth Arts Awards and collecting 21 additional nominations.

Several student actors were awarded for their efforts, including junior Cole Wachman and senior Lillian Buonocore, who won two awards each for lead acting in a musical for their work in “Miss Saigon” and “Avenue Q.”

“I think it’s amazing, because I know that none of us do it for the awards at all,” said Lillian, 17, who plans to study musical theater at the University of Northern Colorado. “We do it because we love it. We don’t expect to get the awards we do, and we don’t even know when we start a show how successful it’s going to be. I think we just get lucky sometimes with a great cast and director, and that’s what happened here.”

In addition to the National Youth Arts honors, which will be awarded at a ceremony Monday in Corona, APA won eight John Raitt Awards for Youth and nearly 40 awards from Music and Arts Commendation for Youth, or MACY.


During the 2014-15 season, the high school performers at APA took on mature roles that were both funny and serious.

“Avenue Q” is often thought of as the adult version of “Sesame Street,” while “Miss Saigon” tells the heartbreaking story of a Vietnamese woman who falls in love with an American soldier during the Vietnam War.

Lillian, who played the protagonist, Kim, in “Miss Saigon,” said that while the character also is 17, she had to get comfortable with portraying her.

For that performance, and for every other since she started musical theater at age 6, she has had to find a way to relate to her character, she said.

“I love kids, so interacting with the kid who played Kim’s son, Tam, was awesome,” she said. “I was able to find strength in myself, so that helped with having to shoot a gun during the play. That was scary. Kelsey, Cole and I are all really close, so that helped us feel like a unit during the show.”

She said APA students have an intense rehearsal schedule on top of schoolwork and other responsibilities, but the support the students get from one another helps keep them going.

Cole, the only junior among the three top winners from APA, said he is excited to continue performing in APA next year.

“I’m scared that I have peaked, but let’s hope I have not,” the 17-year-old joked. “It makes me so excited for the future and to work that much harder to prove to the people who honored us with these awards that they made the right decision.”


Diane Makas, artistic director at APA, said she considers Kelsey, Cole and Lillian “future Broadway stars.”

She said the musical theater program as a whole had an incomparable chemistry and professionalism that aided the group’s success at awards time.

“The amount of awards we’ve gotten this year is overwhelming,” Makas said. “We’ve always been a leader in awards in the state. However, we haven’t done a sweep like this in a very long time. These awards tend not to be political, which is totally awesome.

“All the awards are in agreement at the same time with each other. It’s not like the JRays thought one thing was good and the MACYs thought another was good. There were unanimous decisions across the board from organizations with different judges. I think that was really refreshing and rewarding. That’s an affirmation that hard work pays off.”


Outstanding Production: “Miss Saigon”

Artist of the Year: Kelsey Kato (“As You Like It,” “Avenue Q,” “Miss Saigon,” “The Secret Garden”)

Lead Actor in a Musical: Cole Wachman as Princeton in “Avenue Q”


Lead Actor in a Musical: Cole Wachman as Christopher Scott in “Miss Saigon”

Lead Actress in a Musical: Emily Abeles as Ellen in “Miss Saigon”

Lead Actress in a Musical: Lillian Buonocore as Kate Monster in “Avenue Q”

Lead Actress in a Musical: Lillian Buonocore as Kim in “Miss Saigon”

Lead Actress in a Musical: Allyson Peffers as Mary Lennox in “The Secret Garden”

Lead Actor in a Play: Mason Marie as Arthur Dimmesdale in “The Scarlet Letter”

Lead Actress in a Play: Alyssa Hall as Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”

Supporting Actor in a Musical: Garrett Engle as Brian in “Avenue Q”

Supporting Actor in a Musical: Garrett Engle as Dr. Neville Craven in “The Secret Garden”

Supporting Actor in a Play: Finn Mitchel as Albert in “The Dinner Party”

Featured Actress in a Play: Rachel Fishbough as Marci in “Almost, Maine”

Ensemble: “As You Like It”

Ensemble: “Avenue Q”

Costume Design: Katelyn Mandich and Kamari Rhone for “The Scarlet Letter”

Sound Design/Original Music: Sariah Perez for “As You Like It”

Direction: Tim Nelson for “Miss Saigon”

Direction: Robert Rotenberry for “As You Like It”