When Valley Youth Theatre streams its VYTal Affair-athon fundraiser on Saturday, Aug. 21, West Valley residents may recognize some familiar faces on stage.
Youth and adults from Litchfield Park, Buckeye and Avondale are among the nearly 100 performers who will take part in this year’s eight-hour, Jerry Lewis-style telethon featuring live and recorded interviews and performances from current “VYTkids” and alumni cast members. That includes stars of stage and screen like Broadway’s Nick Cartell, who recently completed a two-and-a-half-year run as Jean Valjean in the National Tour of “Les Misérables.”
Nineteen-year-old Max Mendoza of Avondale, who participated in last year’s VYTal Affair-athon, was eager to jump on stage and raise money for VYT.
“It means the world to me to be able to help out and perform at a theater that has given me so much during some of the most important times of my life,” said Mendoza, who has performed in seven VYT productions including “Tuck Everlasting,” “Newsies” and “The Wizard of Oz.” “VYT has helped me grow into the person and performer I am today. I will always be thankful for the opportunities provided and the people I’ve worked with and met.”
VYT veterans like Mendoza will be joined by younger performers across the Valley — including 10-year-old Buckeye resident Luca Grasso, who performed in “Tuck Everlasting” and also participates in VYT’s show choir, VYTweens.
“My first acting experience was with VYT, and I was hooked from then on,” he said. “It’s so much fun to be a part of this group of kids and adults. I hope the community will come together to help raise funds to keep theater alive, especially after over a year of being shut down. Being a part of this show makes me feel like I’m a part of something special and extremely important.”
His sister, 15-year-old Gabriella, has performed in VYT’s productions of “They Chose Me!” and “Matilda the Musical” and is part of VYTeens. She, too, was excited to get on stage for VYTal Affair-athon.
“Being a part of Valley Youth Theatre has been a dream come true. They give children like me an opportunity not only to grow as a performer but as a person,” Gabriella said. “I’m blessed to be part of the VYT family, and I want to make sure to do my part to show those who run the programs how appreciative I am.”
The virtual event replaces the 27th annual VYTal Affair, the theater’s signature fundraiser. It’s the second year the COVID-19 pandemic prompted VYT to take the event online, but there are benefits to the virtual platform.
“Hosting the event virtually gives us an opportunity to showcase the incredible talent in Phoenix to people around the world,” said Bobb Cooper, VYT’s longtime artistic director. “The cast for this fundraiser includes performers as young as 9 years old, seasoned professionals who were in our shows 30 years ago, and everyone in between. It’s going to be a day of amazing performances.”
This is certainly a boon for Litchfield Park 12-year-old William Richardson, who also is part of VYTweens.
“It means my grandparents and family in the U.K. get to see me, too, as they can livestream the performance, which is brilliant, as I haven’t been able to see them for two years because of the travel restrictions,” he said. “It’s a great way to be together even though we are 6,000 miles apart.”
Most of the performances were prerecorded in July. In addition to vocal numbers, the event will include live Zoom interviews with alumni, multitrack numbers and a few surprise guests.
“We are truly grateful for the swell of support we’ve received over the last 18 months,” Cooper said. “It has touched our hearts and reaffirmed our commitment to inspire young people to be the best they can be — on stage and, more importantly, in life.”
A highlight of the fundraiser is the 21-year reunion of the cast of “West Side Story,” which VYT produced at the Herberger Theater in 2000. Five alumni performers from the original production — Nick Cartell, Katie “Rex” Casey, Chris Ciccarelli, Sharie “Combs” Nievar and Ian Sidden — will come together for a virtual performance of the powerful “Tonight Quintet.”
Each hour of the telethon will be hosted by locals, including Yetta Gibson, Gina Salazar Hook, John Hook, Brad Perry and Carey Peña. The fundraiser also will include a silent auction featuring travel, entertainment, skin care, spa, hotel, and food and beverage packages.
VYT will stage “Spookley the Square Pumpkin, The Musical” from Oct. 1 to Oct. 31. Rounding out the season are the 25th annual production of “A Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas Tail,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Junie B. Jones, The Musical” and “High School Musical.”