By Elisabeth Westermann
Special to The Almanac
Recent Sacred Heart Prep graduate Armand Akbari is the winner in the voice category of the annual $15,000 Steve Silver Foundation & Beach Blanket Babylon Scholarship for the Arts. The scholarship competition is sponsored by the popular San Francisco pop-culture-based musical revue Beach Blanket Babylon.
To compete, high school seniors in the area submit videos of themselves performing in one of three categories: voice, acting, or dance. Three finalists are then chosen in each category to perform their piece live at Club Fugazi, with a panel of celebrity judges present. One performer from each category is then awarded the scholarship.
This year's panel included Grammy award-winning singer and songwriter Tracy Chapman, political satirist Will Durst, jazz and cabaret singer Paula West, and opera composer Jake Heggie, among others.
Hundreds of applicants submit videos each year. Akbari, however, stood out from the beginning: "As soon as we saw that tape we knew he was a winner," Jo Schuman Silver, the scholarship show's producer, told The Almanac. "He had a lot of poise, a lot of confidence. ... He sang a very difficult song and he just sounded amazing."
Akbari sang "Later" from Stephen Sondheim's musical "A Little Night Music." He called the experience of performing in the finalist show "amazing."
The nine finalists were given the opportunity to work with Beach Blanket Babylon professionals to design their performances. "What I really loved was how much freedom we had as performers," Albari said. "It's really cool to arrive and tell them how you want the lights to be, your costume ... . The collaboration with industry professionals to create a performance was surreal. ... They were also some of the nicest people I've ever worked with."
Akbari is no stranger to the world of the performing arts. He is currently in rehearsals for his 31st musical, "Heathers," a production of the Gatehouse Theater in San Francisco, where he is understudying the roles of Ram Sweeney and Kurt Kelley.
Some of his notable past roles include Bernardo in "West Side Story," Monty Navarro in "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder," and Quasimodo in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," all productions of Children's Musical Theater San Jose.
Akbari originally discovered a love of performing arts when his grandmother would take him and his cousins to a movie every week when he was a young child, he told The Almanac. "It made me fall in love with theater and inspired me," he said.
He started participating in musical theater as a fourth grader, and began to take it more seriously as a sixth grader, when he started voice lessons. One of the reasons he loves acting and singing, he said, is that it provides him with a valuable space for self-reflection. "When I sing and when I act, it's kind of an out-of-body experience. It's a way for me to explore myself and what I'm feeling," he said.
Akbari attributes his success in performing arts in part to the performance opportunities he encountered at school, but especially credits his parents with providing him with the support and encouragement. "Their efforts allowed me to be in acting and music classes before I even did my first musical at age 9," he said. "The support, education, and love I have received in my life is the reason I am where I am today."
Akbari is pursuing his love of performing arts in college, where he is planning to major in musical theater at the University of Southern California (USC).
In addition to performing, Akbari loves writing. He will pursue writing plays and music at USC through an honors general education track as well. He has many visions for his future, including being a Broadway performer, film actor, and writer. He hopes to be able to combine the three areas, like his inspiration Lin Manuel Miranda, who is well-known for writing, directing, and performing in the musical "Hamilton" as well as acting in films such as "Moana" and "Mary Poppins Returns."
He knows, though, that whatever path he ultimately takes will be in pursuit of storytelling. "My purpose is to be a story-teller. ... What I want to do with my life is write my own stories and share other people's stories."