In this spring’s school musical, “Crazy for You,” Eric Liu played the lead role of Bobby Child. A banker who aspires to be a dancer, the character is “at heart just a big goofball who wants nothing more than to be onstage and have fun with his life,” Eric says.
The goofball bit aside, that’s not too far from describing Eric, a Rockford High senior who wants nothing more than to make connections in the theater world and have a career onstage.
He hopes to get a start on that next month in New York City, where he will take part in The Jimmy Awards, a national competition honoring the best in high school musical talent. The June 24 event in Manhattan, hosted by Tony Award-winning actor Ben Platt, will feature 86 high school students from 43 theater programs vying for best performance by an actor and actress.
Eric qualified for that recently by being named Best Leading Actor in the state of Michigan at the Sutton Foster Ovation Awards at the Wharton Center in East Lansing.
“I’m extremely excited,” he says of the honors. “I’m mostly just blown away that this is even possible.”
While Eric would love to win the Jimmy Award, he says, “The person who can make the connections and jump-start a career is the winner.”
He is the third recipient from Rockford High in the last five years, including Maddy Mathias and Stacy Coleman. Both are pursuing theater in college and career.
Following Family Tradition
Eric comes by his acting aspirations naturally. He was born into a theatrical family in New Jersey, where his older brother Devon performed on Broadway as the prince in “The King and I,” and all three siblings performed on “Sesame Street.”
After moving to Rockford in 2007, Eric began performing at East Rockford Middle School, including a part in “High School Musical.” In actual high school he took all the speech and drama classes he could, joined the choir and “caught the theater bug” after auditioning for “Biedermann and the Firebugs.”
He went on to perform in several productions including “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Comedy of Errors” and “Godspell.” He weathered personal onstage dramas, such as losing his voice one night as the lead in “Zombie Prom,” and getting glue in his eyes from a fake beard in “Crazy for You.”
“Dancing blind is just horrifying,” he says with a laugh.
However, his tap-dancing, singing and acting talents were noted by visiting adjudicators from the Sutton Foster Ovation Awards, earning him a spot in the state competition May 12. There he sang a medley with other actors, and as a finalist sang “Goodbye” from the musical version of “Catch Me if You Can.”
When he found out he’d won, Eric says, “I was really in shock.”
“Everyone there was just incredibly talented. When I realized I was the one they chose, I thought I was dreaming. I checked my pulse.”
A Gift and Passion for Story-telling
The news did not shock director Kaelynn Earnest, who has had Eric in several classes and productions. She heads a high school theater program that enrolls 250 to 300 students in about a dozen classes and involves some 200 in three or four shows a year.
“First of all, he’s a fabulous musician,” says Earnest, calling him a “naturally gifted” singer. “He is also a good story teller onstage. He uses his body and face to really convey a character, somebody who’s really expressing emotion and thinking and going through something. He’s really good at illustrating that story to the audience. That’s what makes him a cut above the rest.”
Eric returns her praise, calling Earnest “an amazing teacher. She hasn’t just impacted my life. She has directed it, like a good director should.”
Eric also won the Spirit Award from his fellow competitors, an honor exemplifying hard work, kindness and integrity. Earnest says that reflects his charisma, his efforts to be a good friend and his work ethic to always improve. Those traits will serve him well in his career quest, she says, along with “versatility as to what he can do onstage.”
Eric hopes the contacts he makes at The Jimmy Awards lands him some auditions and gets him on his way. If not, he plans to study theater beginning at Grand Rapids Community College, and to start auditioning for local productions. Either way, he has his sights set on a career of performing in the kinds of plays that have entranced him.
“I fell in love with telling people a story,” he says. “There’s no greater rush than an audience who is fully involved in a story, fully invested in the show. It’s really second to none.”