Entertainment

Young theater star wins national award after hard childhood

When Ethan Kelso was a young child, he and his sister used to sing alone in an apartment with no electricity.

But on June 24, he stood on a Broadway stage in New York and sung, by himself, in front of hundreds. His heart-wrenching performance of "Wondering" from the musical "Bridges of Madison County" would win him "Best Performance by an Actor" at the Jimmy Awards, a critically acclaimed national high school theater competition. Previous award recipients are currently starring in Broadway productions such as "Dear Evan Hansen" and "Mean Girls."

The glitz and glamour is a stark contrast from Kelso's earlier life. He credits musical theater as a reprieve after his father was killed in a car accident when he was 3 years old, and he was left in the care of his mother, who struggled with addiction, the Salt Lake Tribune reports .

Kelso and his older sister, Bailey, were eventually placed in foster care until their grandparents, Mary Claire and Gary Kelso adopted them.

"All they had was their voices, they came from such sadness," said Mary Claire Kelso.

His adopted parents encouraged Kelso to take up musical theater as an after-school activity. During rehearsals for his first show, he got so nervous that he quit before it started. After watching his sister in the show "Annie," however, Kelso said he decided to give it another shot. He was cast as the understudy for the lead role in a local production of "Oliver" — and he ended up on stage in half the performances.

"I did a show and then I did another show. And I loved it," Kelso said. "I conquered that first step. That first obstacle. And I never turned back. And it has been my passion and my life ever since."

Kelso said he never expected to win the award. More than 100,000 students throughout the country entered the competition, with 86 finalists making it to New York. Others who have worked with the budding star were less surprised.

"The kid has got talent coming out of his eyeballs," said Katelin Ruzzamenti Knight, Kelso's musical theater instructor at Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts. "He's just a joy to have in class. He works so well with others and he's such a leader."

Kelso recently graduated from SLSPA and is still deciding his next move. He's been accepted to musical theater programs at different universities, but lately the confident young adult has been fielding interviews with talent agencies as of late.

"I can neither confirm nor deny that the new, live-action 'Little Mermaid' was interested in me auditioning," Kelso said. "So that may be a thing. It's a little overwhelming, to be honest, with so many things coming at me. You never know."

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