It culminated last Tuesday night when the Paper Mill Playhouse's 2002 Rising Star Award for Best Musical was presented to High Tech High School's production of "Oz," which was performed in April.
Perez was also presented with Best Director by the Paper Mill's program that honors the best high school productions in New Jersey.
More than 100 high schools throughout New Jersey put on productions that were judged by the Paper Mill's staff of judges. High Tech's production of "Oz," which was an original adaptation from an off-Broadway show in 1995, loosely uses the basis of the traditional "Wizard of Oz" that everyone knows and adores.
The awards were presented last Tuesday night at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn. Each of the six finalists performed a selected number from their respective shows during the awards presentation. Then, the anxious moments began, awaiting word on what show would be crowned as the state's best.
Perez, who teaches theater arts at High Tech, had a solid hunch that the night would turn out spectacular for the students.
"When we received recognition for our costumes, I just had a feeling we might win," Perez said.
The Best Director award was presented first.
"All I heard was 'Aaaaaa,'" Perez said. "Everyone was screaming and jumping on their chairs. People were hitting me. I just crawled into a ball and stayed there, then finally went up to get it."
Perez said that the whole awards presentation was a blur to him.
"There are only little fragments that I can remember," Perez said. "Everything else was like in slow motion. I really didn't know what to expect. The other schools all displayed so many talents."
When the time came to announce the winner for Best Musical, there was a hush among the High Tech contingency.
"As they were getting ready to announce it, I heard a gasp from people in the front row," Perez said. "The card with the name of the winner on it must have been facing the audience, because they saw it first. When the name 'High Tech' was said, it was pure pandemonium."
The students couldn't believe that they had won.
"Oh, my God, you have no idea what this feels like," said senior Matt Kelly, who played Toto in the production, but also did the lighting design. "It is absolutely amazing. It's just like a dream. It's a great recognition. We're all still on a high. Without a doubt, it is truly amazing."
Added Kelly, "We were changing the traditional 'Wizard of Oz' and putting our own spin to it. That's what made this most challenging. And everything was done by the students, from the lighting, to the sound, the sets, the costumes, hair, makeup, scripts, music, everything. That's what made this so different."
According to Susan E. Speidel, the director of education for Paper Mill, High Tech won the Best Musical award because of the show's originality and the ability to allow the students handle so many key roles.
"It was such an interesting show, a unique show," Speidel said. "I think the show allowed the students to play on their musical styles and tastes. I think the judges felt a real sense of commitment with the students. Their seriousness was inspiring to us. They were so professional and that was lovely to see."
Speidel also applauded the efforts of director Perez.
"One of the reasons why he won is that he approached it as an educational experience first," Speidel said. "He allowed them to explore their concepts and made the production fresh and new. You can sense that Alex wanted to give good performances of course, but the educational value came across more."
Gio Perez, who played The Cowardly Lion in the production, said that he sprinted up and down the aisles of the Paper Mill Playhouse in jubilation after High Tech's name was announced.
"Oh, my God," Perez said, sounding like an echo of Kelly. "There are so few words to describe this feeling. I just had this total rush of energy that I had to let out. I was insane. We were all screaming, but then no one was speaking. Never again will I feel anything like that. It was out of this world."
For Kelly and Gio Perez (no relation to the director), the award signified the end of their final year of high school. Kelly will head to Brown University, while Gio Perez will study the performing arts at New York University.
"It's a wonderful way to end the year and leave this all behind," Gio Perez said. "You have no idea how much I'm going to miss these people. I'm going to take every piece of them with me."
The director Perez said that the award is just the culmination of nearly a year-long dedication by the students.
"This was a great topper to an incredible journey," Alex Perez said. "We started from zero and had to raise the money ourselves to get going. From the humble beginnings to evolve into this final success is amazing. You couldn't have ended the year any more perfect than this."