By Rick Koster – The Day

Published March 11 2016

If you haven’t actually attended any of the earlier presentations, you can perhaps be forgiven a bit of skepticism concerning Saturday’s sixth annual New London Youth Talent Show.

We know what you’re thinking. Ah, the ol’ school talent program — that tenderly nurtured lovechild of “Show ‘n’ Tell” and the kindergarten Christmas Pageant.

Yes, a school talent show traditionally has been an anything-goes sort of proposition, a hit-or-miss assemblage of shuffling ballerinas, a cappella renditions of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” or maybe a juggling routine.

Somewhere in this beloved history, though, something remarkable happened. The kids have gotten really good — and the range and mastery of artistic disciplines has exploded in dazzling and sophisticated fashion. This is certainly true of the New London Youth Talent Show, an event that includes artists from across the region who gather together for the best reasons: creative expression and the indelible experience of working with like-minded fellow students under guidance from teachers, coaches and industry professionals.

As always, the show takes place in New London’s Garde Arts Center and the event embodies cooperation, optimism and community strength. This is by design; the inspiration for the show came in response to the murder by five local teens of New London resident Matthew Chew — an enthusiastic member of the city’s arts community.

Originally set up exclusively for New London performers, the vision changed in 2014 when a fight broke out between citizens of New London and Plainfield after a football game. In talent show spirit, organizers of the show reached out to Plainfield with an invitation to be part of the event.

Since then, the show has extrapolated in an all-are-welcome fashion and now includes youths from across the region. Under the supervision of director Curtis K. Goodwin, about 60 young artists of various ages, from 10 communities, will take part in this year’s program. Auditions took place in December, and fans can look forward to a diverse bill that will include urban and traditional dance, a marching band and choirs, acoustic guitar and solo piano, rap and spoken word, pop vocals and on and on.

“This expansion has multiplied out ability to reach a greater audience in the interest of bridging gaps — our theme,” Goodwin says. “Many of our performers are at-risk youth coming from disenfranchised sectors of our communities, and our show is a platform for them to excel and reach expectations they never imagined. We challenge them to not only shine on the stage but to shine within our communities and throughout the world.”

To underscore the limitless possibilities, a special guest also will take part in the festivities. Braiden Sunshine will sing two songs and, as a semi-finalist last fall in NBC’s top-rated “The Voice,” he’s eminently qualified to discuss the merits of a talent show.

“I played the New London Youth Talent Show in 2011 with the band Silver Hammer — and the applause and experience made me want to play music for the rest of my life,” Sunshine says. “Shows like this gave me the confidence to go for a bigger platform.”

Indeed. In addition to the performance experience, part of the aim of the show is to broaden the artists’ overall approach.

“This program continues to build self-confidence and offers students valuable feedback and encouragement from theater and community mentors alike — so that the participants stretch beyond their comfort zones,” says Ken Kitchings, sponsor of the program and a member of the Garde’s board of trustees.

“There’s a lot to learn both on- and offstage at an event like this,” Sunshine says. “You learn how to get up in front of a crowd and really command a major stage. You learn the importance of friendships, and it’s a lot of fun when great musicians and performers get together and do what they love while supporting each other. There’s something beautiful about that.”

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