By Sue Cullen
Anyone who has heard teenage singing sensation Maria Wirries knows the gut tickling sense of being in the presence of true talent and the pleasure of watching someone so young handle an audience with such élan. The incredible journey this confident 15-year-old sophomore at Manatee School for the Arts has taken in her short lifetime is as remarkable as her innate talent. Maria’s own capacity for hard work and the generous actions of family, in the broadest sense, have helped her create a very different life from the one into which she was born.
It seems Maria has been everywhere this season starting in October when she played Sister Mary Leo and was dance captain in “Nunsense” at The Players Theatre. She also soloed with the Sarasota Orchestra at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, and she is a featured vocalist with the Sarasota Orchestra Jazz Ensemble, lead tenor drummer and featured vocalist with the Jacobites Pipe and Drum Band, and worked with the renowned jazz pianist and composer Dick Hyman to debut a new jazz number with Gloria Musicae — just to name a few.
As well as being a singer, actress and Celtic tenor drummer, Maria also is an en pointe ballet dancer, rated senior figure skater, composer, pianist, and plays the ukulele. She made her international debut in July as Gloria Musicae’s featured vocalist at the Amalfi Coast Music & Arts Festival for three major concerts and several extemporaneous performances, including one memorable solo in the Blue Grotto of Capri, which can be seen on YouTube along with many of her other performances.
Maria also lends her vocal talents to many galas and fundraisers including Jewish Family & Children Services, American Jewish Committee, Catholic Charities, Cat Depot, Sarasota Bay Club, Designing Women Boutique, Embracing our Differences, and Sarasota Institute of Lifelong Learning. She has performed many solo concerts, including four to benefit the poor in her native Haiti, where she likely would have lived a very different life of struggle if not for her biological aunt who fought to adopt her.
Born in Port Au Prince to a Haitian woman, Maria was turned over to her American missionary father to raise because her mother was unable to care for her. When she was four months old, her father died of a blood disorder, and his sister Jeaneen Wirries traveled to Haiti to bring Maria to Florida. “I had to go down there when he passed away. I promised him I would take care of her if anything happened to him,” Jeaneen said. “I was 62 and retired when I got her and had raised four children, but with family you can’t say no. It took a long time, but I got her out.” As the only mother she’s ever known, Maria calls Jeaneen “Mom.”
It didn’t take long before Maria demonstrated that she is special. Jeaneen says she learned to walk and talk at about nine months and showed an early aptitude for, and interest in, music. When she was about 18 months old, an aunt gave her a xylophone and would play nursery tunes on it, which Maria was able to play back by ear. However, it was during a talent show when she was in kindergarten that Maria was bitten by the performance bug. “I sang ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad’,” she recalled. “I liked being out front of the audience and making them happy. I enjoy that.” All it took was a little encouragement from her Mom. “I told her if you can get in front of people and do this, you will be able to do something the majority of people are not able to do,” Jeaneen said. “When people clapped, that did it for her.”
From there, the young Maria charmed audiences with a repertoire of country-western tunes at fairs, rodeos, prizefights, Flywheeler meets and talent contests. It turned out that a talent competition led to a pivotal moment in Maria’s life and changed it nearly as completely as Jeaneen’s decision to bring her to the U.S. Although she did not win the contest, she was asked to sing before a performance at The Players Theatre. “I first came across Maria several years ago when this little girl stepped on stage, and this big voice came out,” says Jeffery Kin, the theatre’s artistic director. “Maria’s feet are firmly planted on the ground. She is kind and considerate, and there is never a hint of ‘don’t you know how good I am?’ I believe she has the makings of a person who could become famous. She could become a star. She has the work ethic, the talent, plus that inner joy that is often so elusive.”
That performance at The Players led to a fortuitous meeting. “After I sang at The Players, I met Greg Gregory and Ilene Friedman,” Maria says. “Over the years, we’ve gotten closer and closer, and now he’s my honorary Grandpa.” The way Greg remembers it, “Maria sang ‘New York, New York’, and my reaction was, ‘Streisand might just as well retire now.’ She brought the house down.” Greg and Ilene introduced themselves to Maria and Jeaneen during intermission. Greg talked about his role as drum major for the Jacobites Pipe and Drum Band, and Jeaneen gave him one of Maria’s CDs. “After listening to it, I knew she was a rare talent,” he said, and he arranged for her to audition as a singer with the Jacobites. “When I saw those drummers doing all this crazy stuff, I decided I’ve got to be a part of that, so now I’m a vocalist and play the tenor drums,” Maria says.
As their friendship blossomed, Greg and Ilene became aware of Maria’s and her Mom’s circumstances. Jeaneen was in her 70s, and the two were living off Social Security benefits and the small change Maria earned from her performances, which promptly went into piano and skating lessons. “They were living in a very small camper trailer in the Myakka woods on the grounds of Jeaneen’s sister’s and her husband’s property,” Greg said. They also discovered that Maria was being homeschooled using an online curriculum.”
It was around this time that Maria began taking voice lessons from Alan Corey who thought she would do well at Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto. “Maria’s talent is certainly extraordinary,” Corey says. “Both her voice itself and her musical instincts — her sense of pitch, rhythm — are very advanced, but it is her awareness and ability to embrace a wide variety of styles that makes her most musically marketable.”
Unfortunately, living so far away in the Myakka woods presented too many obstacles. Greg and Ilene felt that “just wasn’t right” and found a home for them much closer to the school. Maria was accepted and now is dual enrolled at State College of Florida, continually earning a spot on the honor roll for both her academic and artistic subjects, Greg says. MSA’s Assistant Principal Terry Devine characterizes Maria as highly talented and a dedicated performer who works very hard to hone her craft, and he admires her great attitude toward helping out and getting the job done. The school does recruitment shows in which Maria participates, and one day a performer did not show up as scheduled. “I looked around the cafeteria and saw Maria there and said to her, ‘hey Maria, come on, you’re going on the show’,” he said. “On the way there, Maria said, ‘so what am I performing?’ We looked at my iPod to figure out what songs I had that she could perform, and put together a show on the way to the performance.”
As her “honorary grandpa” and “bestie” (best friend) respectively, Greg and Ilene are naturally proud of all Maria’s accomplishments. Maria also relishes their relationship. “We go to these big functions and sit together, and we cannot be quiet. We’re always giggling about something,” Maria says. “We’ve met their friends, and they’ve become our friends. Greg and Ilene have been a huge influence in our lives.” Jeaneen concurs. “They are part of our family now,” she says. “They’ve done an awful lot to help us and get Maria to meet people who can make a difference in her life. Now she’s friends with everyone in Sarasota, I think.”
Greg is particularly pleased that he and Maria share a passion for the Jacobites Pipe and Drum Band where, in addition to singing and performing the tenor drum, Maria also is an instructor. So is the Jacobites’ Pipe Major Gary Reinstrom. “I feel her greatest talent is her ability to connect with people individually or from the stage. She is a delight to be around,” Reinstrom says. “I also see Maria as a natural leader and motivator. I have seen her instruct men and women much older with success.”
In the whirlwind of all her performances, Maria counts one standout as working with Dick Hyman, which she defines as “cool” and fitting particularly well with an interest in jazz sparked by her “Uncle” Barry. Most memorable, however, was her first performance with the Sarasota Orchestra to celebrate the 90th birthday of Ilene’s mother Bea Friedman. “I was 12 or 13, and it was the first time I ever performed with a live orchestra. The sound of the orchestra and being with such wonderful people was incredible,” she said. “My knees were shaking that night, and I don’t normally get nervous.” Sarasota Orchestra CEO Joe McKenna also considers that first performance memorable. “Everyone in attendance knew this was the start of something special. It is wonderful to watch her journey,” McKenna says. “Maria is a remarkable young musician. She is extraordinarily talented and her poise is well beyond her years. She excels in all that she does, and does so with a smile and humble nature; indeed a rare combination of attributes.”
As much as her extraordinary talent, it may be that “rare combination” of personal attributes that define Maria’s future. “Maria is one of those exceptional people who excels at everything. She’s smart and quick. She has sparkle, energy and poise that sets her apart from others on and off stage,” says June LeBell, who was the nation’s first female announcer at a major commercial classical music station. “Making a career in music is not easy. I’ve met exceptionally talented singers who never amounted to anything and less talented performers who became stars. Maria is one of those young musicians who could, if all her stars are aligned, become a supernova.”
Maria’s in-born characteristics along with her extraordinary talent are shaping her ambitions for herself and likely will define her future. “She likes to make things better for people, and she likes to entertain people,” Jeaneen says. “When she was eight, she wanted to do a breeding program for whales. She doesn’t think in small things.” That hasn’t changed. In addition to wanting to marry Leonardo DiCaprio, Maria harbors no small ambitions. One day, she plans to be president of Haiti and perhaps an ambassador, much the same as former child star Shirley Temple. “I’d like to fix Haiti’s corrupt government and make a better economy. They are such a creative people, I’d love to show the world how creative they are,” Maria says. “I’m planning to go to college and double major in political science and musical theater. I’ll start out with a musical career. I’d really like to do Broadway and tour, and then I want to go into a political type career.”
It is that level-headed, goal-oriented approach, sparked by youthful enjoyment, that also fuels her drive to excel at ice skating, which she has done since she was three and now ranks as a singing rated figure skater. She recently earned a gold medal in moves and plans to do the same in freestyle, which will allow her to qualify for opportunities like Disney on Ice. “I like skating because I get to be with my friends and have a good time, and it’s good to have on my resume,” she concludes with a characteristic mix of joy and practicality.
In this celebrity-crazed and “reality” TV society, it’s refreshing to find those who are focused on actual reality. “People say Maria should go on American Idol. I say why? We don’t want her to go off half prepared in life,” says Jeaneen. Greg adds, “We believe Maria has what it takes in terms of talent, focus, dedication and discipline to accomplish her goals and undoubtedly much, much more.”