OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- The fine and performing arts department at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kan., this past week staged the enduring musical The Fantastics. MNU went outside the university to fill the role of Matt, the male lead in the production. For that important job, the director chose a high school student -- this week's Fox 4 Young Achiever, Riley Ewing.
Riley Ewing says it's his place, the place he feels most alive, most comfortable -- treading the boards of the stage -- doing live theater.
"It's an escape for me," says Riley. "It's fun to explore. I find a lot of things out about myself when becoming someone else." Whether it's pouring himself into drama. like his manic role in the recent production at Blue Valley Northwest High School of the provocative 9/11-themed play, New York, or diving in to his great love, musical theater, like playing Matt in The Fantasticks at MidAmerica Nazarene University a few days ago, Riley says the stage is his home, the place he wants to be for life.
"Even since the age of 12," says Riley, "I told my dad, 'This is what I want to do. I can't see myself doing anything else.'"
"The voice is amazing," says Jay Coombes, a Kansas City area voice teacher, stage director, actor, choreographer and costume designer. "And his acting is good, his acting is very good. He knows how to tell a story." Coombes is Riley's godfather and gave him his first ever stage role, a walk-on part in Guys and Dolls that got Riley hooked on acting years ago. And Coombes just directed Riley in his star turn in The Fantasticks.
"There are many actors that can act and move the story forward," says Coombes, "but if they have to sing, the personality goes away and they can't tell the story anymore. But (Riley's) able to continue telling that story." Riley's whole life revolves around performing. At Blue Valley Northwest, he's also a key member of the school's outstanding Chorale that will perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City next spring -- a very high honor for a high school singing group.
"It's fantastic, I'm so excited," says Riley. "We've recently been getting all the music learned. We've been learning Mozart's 'Requiem' bit by bit. It's very very difficult. I love the professional experience. And it's the drive that everyone in the choir has basically said, 'There's no backing out of this. We're going to go full on and we're going to make this rock!'" Riley's training and career dreams took a giant leap forward this past summer. He auditioned for and was selected to study and perform in one of the most renowned and respected arts programs -- Interlochen.
"It just opened my heart to all these possibilities that I could do so much more than I was doing," says Riley. "It just opened all these doors to what could be." Riley spent six weeks at Interlochen and starred as Father in the famed Michigan arts center's summer youth musical production of Children of Eden.
"It was this real opportunity affirm that my dream was not only possible but I was well on my way to it."
"Absolute drive and burning desire to do this," says Coombes about Riley's passion for doing live theater. Coombes, Riley's longtime performing mentor, says there is no doubt about Riley's talent but what will make him a theater success more than anything is his drive and determination.
"The kids who want to do this business, there are hundreds of them that are talented enough to do this business," says Coombes. "But what separates Riley, I think, from the hundreds of other kids is his determination to make it happen."
"And if that means if I have been told 'no' at 100 auditions or I have been rejected at colleges," says Riley, "I'll do whatever it takes. I will take any number of classes, go to any number of lessons, practice any number of hours it takes to get there because it's all I really want to do with my life."
Riley's now performed in 20 major productions in school and community theater, including his first starring roles as The Cowardly Lion' in The Wizard of Oz and Horton in Seussical in middle school productions.
Fox 4 News is Working 4 You to spotlight outstanding young people and their positive accomplishments. In our weekly report called Reaching 4 Excellence we meet young achievers in subjects like academics, the arts, leadership, community service, volunteerism, career exploration, overcoming obstacles and heroism. Watch for Reaching 4 Excellence every Monday on Fox 4 News at 8 a.m., every Wednesday on Fox 4 News at 9 p.m. and every Thursday on Fox 4 News at 5 p.m.