NORTH ADAMS — Tonight's the kind of night Alyssa Richardson has been working toward all of her life: Stepping out onto a stage to perform music at a sold-out show.
The Drury High School senior and town of Florida resident is the opening act for one of her musical idols and inspirations — internationally touring and award-winning artist Matt Cusson, also a Berkshire County native.
Richardson invited the artist to the Drury Performing Arts Center's "Drury After Dark," an intimate series that puts the audience on stage with the artists in a black box theater-style setting. This will be the DPAC's third sold-out Drury After Dark show this year produced by the arts management class.
The young woman and aspiring musical artist credited her school for affording such a performing arts opportunity for her and her friends here in the Berkshires.
"At Drury, we're doing things professional theaters do. We have amazing talent that's coming here. [Matt Cusson's] played with Cee Lo Green and Stevie Wonder, and now I get to play with him," said Richardson. "This may be one of the biggest moments in my life."
For Cusson, who's been working in the Berkshires to finish his new album, "Only Human," due out in the spring, doing a hometown show at the school-based arts center was an easy decision to make.
"I've always been an advocate for music in the schools. I think it's great what they're doing [at Drury]," he said. "I heard [Richardson] sing a long time ago ... and if there's anything I can do to help young artists, I want to help."
Music has always been a part of Richardson's life. Her dad, Adam Richardson, has been the lead vocalist and guitarist with The Rockhounds, and bought Alyssa her first Yamaha starter piano when she was 4 years old. She performed with school bands and choruses, picking up guitar along with way. She's also taken music lessons with her Drury teacher Christopher Caproni, and Williams College vocal instructor Erin Nafziger.
Richardson was a student at Gabriel Abbott Memorial School, from a tiny class of about a dozen or so students, when she first saw Cusson perform. He was visiting the school as a keyboard player with the Sister City Jazz Ambassadors when he was asked to perform a solo song, "Georgia On My Mind."
It immediately snapped Richardson to attention. "It was the fact that he was so quiet to begin with, so humble with it on the keyboards and then he sang. He's an incredible voice, absolutely incredible," she said.
From there on out, anytime Cusson had a Berkshire gig, Richardson was there, with either friends or a family member in tow.
It was her grandfather, Chuck Ardizzoni, who brought her to a 2011 show at the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge. Richardson had previously befriended Cusson through social media and sent him a video of her playing the introduction to Cusson's song "Comfortable" that Richardson had taught herself. She sat front and center at the show, and when Cusson spotted her, she said, he invited her on stage to play a bit of the song.
"It was an absolutely incredible, awestruck moment for me. It made me want to keep performing. He'd kind of been an inspiration for me to be a better musician," the young woman said.
Upon arriving at Drury in eighth-grade, she pushed herself to try new things, from trying out for the school's softball teams to auditioning for the school's musical that year, "Wizard of Oz," under the direction of legendary Drury drama teacher, Dr. Len Radin. Richardson was cast as the lead, portraying Dorothy, and quickly got involved with chorus, band and arts management.
As 21st-century musicians, both Richardson and Cusson have learned the importance of diversifying themselves as artists and finding mentors and allies in the industry.
Asked how he approaches his practice, Cusson said, "It's about always growing and always getting better at your craft. Since my first album, I've become a much better piano player and play way better guitar."
At their own levels, both Cusson and Richardson have learned studio production and marketing skills, and leave no genre of music tuned out.
Richardson, an alto/mezzo-soprano, who will go on to study vocal performance at the College of Saint Rose after graduation, said her iPod and music album collection ranges from A Day to Remember to Yanni, and from Mozart to Miles Davis.
Both she and Cusson are self-proclaimed fans of another Berkshire resident and cultural icon, James Taylor.
Cusson said he's pulling out all the stops on his new album, with 15 songs ranging from classical to bluegrass, funk and R&B stylings. "Only Human," will feature collaborators such as Zane Carney (guitarist for John Mayer), Shoshana Bean (Broadway's "Wicked," recording credits with Ariana Grande), and Megan Hilty (Broadway's "Wicked" and television's "Smash").
Cusson continues to work with collaborator Javier Colón (inaugural winner of the television competition show "The Voice"), the two currently working on music for an upcoming NASA production. Cusson's also produced music for a documentary film, "Lady Diana," about the late Princess of Wales, due out in March.
"My goal is to get my fingerprints on as many things as I can," said Cusson. "There will always be an artist in me. I want to be that one-stop shop that anyone can come to and work with. So, I've had to learn self-reliance and learn different things."
As for Richardson, she's heading down a similar path, and finding support along the way, from Cusson to her classmates to her teachers, mentors, friends and family.
"My jazz band teacher, Mr. Caproni, has been a fully fueled rocket pushing me through absolutely anything," she said, describing the time she called him for help when she blanked before a college audition. "He started singing vocal warm-ups with me over the phone while he was in the middle of the Williams College campus."
She also touted her fellow seniors, many members of the band Maple Cap (Jacob Keplinger, Mike Mazzu, Elliott Eastman, Chris Andrews and Tyler Shaw) for supporting one another in their musical pursuits. The band will back Richardson as tonight's opening act.
"It's really a surreal feeling to have dreams and stuff and see people pushing it with all they've got," Richardson said.
After tonight's gig, Richardson said she plans on pursuing more solo gigs, as well as with her duet project with Keplinger called "Chasing Daylight."
"I definitely want to get to the point where I play more and I can get bigger gigs so more people see me. I'm giving it all I've got right now, and if I crash and burn, at least I can say that I tried," she said.
Learn more about Drury Performing Arts at facebook.com/dpacconcertseries.
Learn more about Matt Cusson at mattcusson.com or find him on social media.