Young guns steal the a cappella spotlight

Singing in the shadow of Limited Edition for years, Port High’s extracurricular ensemble of mostly freshmen and sophomores makes headlines by earning trip to semifinals

FOCUS MEMBERS Brooke Mitchell took center stage during the Port Washington High School group’s Feb. 4 performance at the Varsity Vocals International Competition of High School A Cappella Great Lakes Quarterfinal at the Oak Creek Performing Arts Center. FOCUS placed second and earned a trip to the semifinals on March 25 at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. Photos by Robert Tyree
Ozaukee Press staff

Port Washington High School is back in the a cappella spotlight, but this time it’s the school’s extracurricular ensemble FOCUS, not its acclaimed Limited Edition group, that is making headlines.

FOCUS placed second in the Varsity Vocals International Competition of High School A Cappella Great Lakes Quarterfinal on Saturday, Feb. 4, at the Oak Creek Performing Arts Center in dramatic fashion, no less, by tying Oak Creek High School’s Knight Club at 343 points.

“That’s the first time I’ve seen that happen,” Port High Choral Director Dennis Gephart, a veteran of a cappella competitions, said of the tie.

The performance earned FOCUS, whose previous highest finish in a Varsity Vocals competition was a third in 2020, its first trip to the semifinals at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee on March 25.

“They just kind of stood there in shock,” Gephart said.

FOCUS Director Stephen Lanza said, “They were just over the moon. My reaction was just as ridiculous as theirs when I let loose the loudest scream they’ve probably ever heard.”

FOCUS’ performance last weekend raises an intriguing possibility. If Limited Edition, a perennial powerhouse in a cappella competitions and a past Varsity Vocals champion, places in the top two at its quarterfinal on Feb. 18, Port High will have two groups competing among the elite in the region in the semifinals.

“Just to have one group in the semifinals competing against the top groups from three states is excellent,” Gephart, who directs Limited Edition, said. “To have two groups in that competition would be amazing.”

The first FOCUS group to make it to the semifinals is also one of its youngest.

“They’re just a really talented group of mostly freshmen and sophomores,” Gephart said.

Talent is only half the story, Lanza said.

“Talent is one thing, and they are indeed talented, but what you can’t teach is the work ethic, and they have that,” he said.

Gephart also credits the group’s success to Lanza, whose passion for a cappella led the manufacturing engineer on a rather circuitous route to Port Washington, a community he had no connection to until he signed on to lead FOCUS.

After singing with the University of Missouri’s a cappella group Add9 for years, Lanza was living in Madison when in 2017 he accompanied a friend to an a cappella competition in DeKalb, Ill.

“I had been trying to get my own group together and my friend said, ‘You have to talk to Dennis,’” Lanza said.

She was referring to Gephart, who was one of the judges at the competition and instead of helping Lanza launch his own ensemble convinced him to lead FOCUS.

Lanza now lives in Milwaukee, where he works for Rockwell Automation, and every Tuesday night makes the trip to Port Washington for a two-hour rehearsal with FOCUS.

Not only does he volunteer to direct the group, he arranges its music.

“It gives me a way to stay involved in a cappella,” Lanza said. “I love it.”

Limited Edition, an elective music class, was well established when Gephart created FOCUS to expose more students to a cappella.

While students can’t audition for Limited Edition until they are sophomores, freshmen can join FOCUS, and plenty of them, as well as older students, vie for a place in the ensemble.

About 70 students audition every year for FOCUS, which this year is comprised of 18 students.

Some of those who make the cut will go on to join Limited Edition. Others, who perhaps don’t have the time to commit to Limited Edition but love a cappella music, will remain with FOCUS, Gephart said.

“FOCUS gets pegged as the JV team, as the wannabes,” Lanza said. “Limited Edition has been the shining star of the music program for so long, so it’s so cool to see FOCUS have success.

“And now they have an incredible opportunity.”

Tickets for the  Varsity Vocals Great Lakes Semifinals, which begins at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 25, at the Pabst Theater, can be purchased at


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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