Making the Grade

Desperate to earn some money to pay rent, slacker and wannabe rocker, Dewey Finn, poses as a substitute teacher at an elite prep school.  When he learns that his students are excellent musicians, he forms a rock band with them to enter a Battle of the Bands contest, but in the process of preparing for the event, teacher and students help each other to find their voices.  This is School of Rock and it is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Julian Fellowes’ story is really a middle of the line story.  His use of the “discovering your real self” motif doesn’t break any new ground and the story fluctuates from being extremely engaging in any scene with Dewey and the kids to going a bit blasé in most big group adult scenes.  In fairness, that may also be by design as most of the big group adult scenes take place in the rigid environment of Horace Green.  Even Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music seems to lack a certain sizzle.  There’s no real standout with the rock numbers with the exceptions of “You’re in the Band”, “Stick It to the Man” and “School of Rock”, though his softer, slower numbers truly do shine.

The thing about a middle of the line story is that acting becomes the real difference maker.  Strong acting can help elevate it and that’s exactly what happens here.  The ferocious tsunami of energy supplied by the cast and their high quality musical chops move this show from an OK show to a very good one.

Stephen Santa rises to the challenge of directing this show.  He gets everything he can out of the slower paced scenes and the high energy scenes really crackle and pop.  I especially applaud Santa’s work with the children as they were truly natural and believable and brought me back to my own days in elementary school.  Santa also does excellent work guiding his adult actors, especially his two leads who give charming, winning performances.  I also appreciate Santa’s eye for a good gag with the Mission:  Impossible like escape from the school being a particularly good piece of pantomime.

As I previously stated, this show is mostly about the kids and they do a tremendous job.  They seemed utterly comfortable on stage and I loved how they were just willing to play which is the secret to really great acting.  I also tip my hat to their skillful playing of the instruments live onstage (I truly thought they were miming until I was just clued in).  Some of the A+ performances from the class came from Thomas Rogers and Zidyn Burton whose singing voices are angelic and utterly enthralling.  Liam Richardson gives a sweet performance as the reticent and less than cool Lawrence.  Vienna Maas had the audience roaring with some of her histrionics.

I think I burned off a few thousand calories just watching Thomas Gjere tear it up as Dewey Finn.  The man is indefatigable in a role that has almost zero down time.  Finn is always on and definitely has the energy of a hard rocker.  He’s also selfish and childish as he refuses to be a responsible adult and uses the kids to further his own ambitions.  Under the crud beats a pretty good heart as he is willing to listen to the kids and give them all a spot in the band.  Gjere also has a rocking tenor which can belt out a fine tune in “Stick It to the Man” and “You’re in the Band”.

Lauren Krupski is a delight as Horace Green’s principal, Rosalie Mullins.  Krupski nails it as the stiff as a board principal who lost her humanness in the pursuit of being a perfect administrator to satisfy the snooty parents who pay $50K a year to educate their children, but refuse to let the kids be themselves.  I especially enjoyed when Krupski peeled off the layers of the principal to reveal the easy going person underneath whenever she heard music.  And what a voice!  Krupski’s operatic soprano was stunning in “Queen of the Night” and my favorite number “Where Did the Rock Go?”

Vivian Rase gets a gold star for her performance as Summer Hathaway.  Rase is uptight to the extreme as Hathaway who seems bound and determined to skip childhood with her obsession for accomplishments and her blunt directness with adults.  She never really relaxes, but does positively rechannel her traits when she becomes the band’s manager where her fastidiousness keeps things rolling and organized.  Rase does need to watch her articulation a bit, especially at the top of Act II.

Steven Williams has designed one of the most creative sets I’ve seen as he frames the stage with a giant radio complete with speakers and buttons.  His classroom will take you back to your childhood days, especially with the enhancements of Andrew Morgan’s properties.  I loved Josh Wroblewski’s colorful use of lights especially in solo scenes when concert spotlights start highlighting the singers.  Melanie Walters’ choreography is simple, but effective and consists mostly of people rocking out and headbanging.  Jim Boggess and his band couldn’t fail if they tried and add real emotion to the softer numbers and pop for all they can with the rock numbers.  Lindsay Pape’s costumes hit the mark with the sloppy, uncoordinated clothing of Dewey to the stiff business wear of most of the adults to the school uniforms and their rock band counterparts.  Tim Burkhart & John Gibilisco’s sounds add the proper feel and ambiance.

Some actors needed to be a bit more animated and I heard some difficulty hitting notes on the higher and lower ends of the register, but all in all, it’s a light and enjoyable night of theatre and you’re going to have a ball right along with the kids and Dewey.

School of Rock runs at Omaha Community Playhouse through Oct 16.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets start at $25 and may be purchased at the OCP Box Office, by phone at (402) 553-0800 or online at OmahaPlayhouse.com. The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

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