Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Mary Meserve-Miller was the artistic director at San Luis Obispo Little Theatre. She was the development director.
Last Monday, Joanna Jones had a difficult choice to make: study for her Shakespeare final or watch herself perform on national television.
The Pismo Beach resident and 2008 Nipomo High School graduate was still fretting over her decision a half hour before she was to appear on NBC’s “The Sing-Off” when local theater director Mary Meserve-Miller called to tell her how proud she was.
“I said, ‘Put the freakin’ book down — you’re going to be on national TV,’ ” said Meserve-Miller, who cast Jones in her 2008 musical “What’d I Say, a Musical Tribute to Ray Charles.” “ ‘You don’t need a final — you need an agent.’ ”
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So Jones came up with a compromise: She would go to a friend’s place and watch the opening number, then hit the books.
“But clearly there was no way I could not watch it,” said Jones, a junior studying musical theater at UCLA. “So I went over there, I saw the first number, and I was like, ‘Ok, just kidding — I’m staying.’ ”
It turns out, she was one of more than 8 million to watch the show, which The New York Times recently called “one of the few true ratings surprises of the fall television season.”
Benefiting from the success of Fox television’s hit “Glee,” the show features 10 a cappella groups competing for $100,000 and a contract with Sony Music.
Jones is competing with her group, the Backbeats, composed mostly of students from UCLA and USC.
After advancing during Wednesday’s episode, Jones and the Backbeats will appear on the show again tonight at 8 on local NBC television affiliate KSBY.
While the Backbeats features 10 members, Jones has been the lead singer for the first two episodes. And when the show selected members of the various groups to sing at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Jones kicked off their rendition of U2’s “Beautiful Day.”
“I’ve watched the Macy’s parade every year since I was a little girl,” said Jones, who’d never been to the East Coast before. “New York is so beautiful, especially at this time, when they decorate everything for Christmas.”
Judging by her heightened profile, Jones, may be traveling a lot more in her future.
“She’s a prodigy,” said Meserve-Miller, who called her “the next Zac Efron,” referring to the Arroyo Grande High School graduate who became a teen heartthrob.
Robyn Metchik, the Nipomo High School drama teacher who taught Efron when she worked at Arroyo Grande High, agreed.
“You’ll see her on Broadway, you’ll see her in films,” said Metchik, who worked with Jones for six years and also teaches at Mesa and Paulding middle schools. “She could be a character actress, she can be a diva, she can be a geek. She has an incredible range — alto to high soprano.”
Even NBC seems to recognize Jones’ talent, giving her much exposure in the Macy’s parade and commercials promoting the show.
“They get her,” local choreographer Suzy Miller said. “She has the ‘It’ factor.”
Jones said her first memory of singing goes back to when she was 4 years old.
“It was a Christmas play at my little Christian school in Santa Maria,” she said. “I had a solo.”
Jones continued to act, sing and dance in school and community theater productions. Despite her talents, Jones has always remained humble, rooting for others to succeed, Meserve-Miller said.
“This is the kind of person you want this to happen to,” she said.
A couple of years ago, Meserve-Miller, then development director at the San Luis Obispo Little Theatre, heard about Jones from her husband, Mike, who’d seen Jones perform in “Aida” at Nipomo High. On his recommendation, Meserve-Miller went on a talent-seeking mission.
“My jaw was on the floor,” she said. “I looked at (Mike) and said, ‘She will be in one of my shows before she goes to Los Angeles.’ ”
In “What’d I Say,” performed at the Clark Center in Arroyo Grande, Jones performed a duet with her father and belted out a stirring Aretha Franklin-style version of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.”
A few months later, she went on to UCLA, where she got involved with a competitive a cappella group called Awaken.
Meanwhile, USC student Kenton Chen saw the first season of “The Sing-Off” and decided he had to be on the show. So he assembled a group of the best a cappella singers he could find. And after several auditions with “The Sing-Off,” the Backbeats were in.
And suddenly, Jones was on network TV.
“Early in the year, this wasn’t on my radar,” she said.
When asked if this was her big break, she was careful not to get too excited. Yet, it’s hard not to think of the possibilities.
“I’ve always been interested in television and film,” she said.
In the first episode, she belted out a version of Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy.” This past week, she led the Backbeats through “Breakeven” by Irish band the Script.
She hasn’t had any offers yet — which Jones said is sort of a good thing because she still has the stress of school, plus the show, which concludes with a live finale Dec. 20.
Mum’s the word on whether her group has advanced in the already-taped episodes leading to the final. But the future looks good.
“I hope she does it all,” Miller said. “But I’d love to see her go Broadway.”
With her exposure, she just might. But first Jones will return home to perform for the opening weekend of Meserve-Miller’s musical “Best of the Original Legends Series,” beginning Dec. 31 at the Clark Center.