Wauwatosa East High School theater director Kate Sarner held back tears as she talked about the growth she's seen in her student, Travis Ulrich, during his tenure at the school.

'He's just excellent,' she said, wiping away tear drops that fell from her eyes as she sat next to Ulrich in an office. The sound of students laughing and rehearsing echoed throughout the nearby hallways.

Ulrich, 18, has been selected to represent the state of Wisconsin at the 2016 National High School Musical Theatre Awards in New York City this summer for his performance as Gaston in the high school's production of 'Beauty and the Beast,' a role for which he won a leading performer Tommy Award. Named for Broadway star Tom Wopat, Tommy Awards encourage and honor excellence in high school musical theater.

Ulrich's career

The Wauwatosa East High School senior has been active in the performing arts for some time; he was involved with at least three productions at Longfellow Middle School. Once in high school, he was cast as Link Larkin in the school's production of 'Hairspray,' and performed in 'Godspell' and 'Curtains.' He played Kerchak and Tarzan's father in 'Tarzan,' for which he also won a Tommy Award in 2015.

His latest role at the high school came when he played Gaston in 'Beauty and the Beast.'

'There was a rumor going around among the younger kids that I stuffed hamburger meat into my arms to make my muscles look bigger,' joked Ulrich as he spoke about his role as Gaston. The part required the 6-foot, 2-inch senior to lift weights and build his muscle strength.

The National High School Musical Theatre Awards is a celebration of outstanding student achievement recognizing individual artistry in vocal, dance, and acting performance. Students who participate are housed and attend classes and rehearsals on the New York University campus. The week concludes with a panel of industry experts selecting students for The Jimmy Awards, named in honor of Broadway theater owner and producer James M. Nederlander. The 2016 Jimmy Awards ceremony will take place June 27 at the Minskoff Theatre in Times Square.

Of the 69 recipients of Outstanding Leading Performers awards named across the state, 27 auditioned to be one of the two to advance to New York City. Middleton High School student Kailey Boyle was also selected to advance.

Ulrich said he's excited to learn from industry professionals in New York City later this month. The experience will mark the next step in pursuing performance beyond high school, he said. It's his goal in life to make a living performing, something he hopes to do in Ireland.

The senior will head to Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois, this fall to study musical theater and business. He said one of the more memorable parts of his high school theater career include the profound, lasting friendships he has forged with cast mates and finally 'clicking' into his talents his junior year, while rehearsing for 'Tarzan.'

West receives honors, too

Ulrich's selection to the national awards follows in the footsteps of Wauwatosa West High School student Rayven Burdette, who at age 17 was selected for the same award in 2015. It's a unique occurrence as only two students from across Wisconsin — one male, one female — are chosen for the annual award. For two years in a row, a Wauwatosa student has been selected.

Adding to the peculiar circumstance is that Wauwatosa West senior Cobi Tappa was named a runner-up for the trip to New York City in the event Ulrich couldn't make it.

Tappa, 18, starred as the scarecrow in the school's production of 'The Wizard of Oz,' this spring and won a Tommy Award for the role. Tappa said it was an honor to audition for the National High School Musical Theatre Awards alongside other Wisconsin talents.

'Everyone was so supportive,' he said. 'We were all just so happy to be there.'

Adam Steffan, the theater director at Wauwatosa West, said that he and Sarner have worked to develop theater-related curriculum into the school district's curriculum. The courses have allowed Wauwatosa students to perfect their skills and, in some ways, have given local students opportunities that pupils in other districts might not have access to, he said.

'Everyone has talent within them,' Steffan said of the awards, adding, 'Things of this nature don't happen on accident.'

Tappa said he plans to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison this fall to pursue a degree in engineering, although he hopes to continue his involvement with the fine arts.

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