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.

She Pre-Rocks

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On an absolutely perfect night at the Davies Amphitheater in Glenwood, IA, the one and only Tara Vaughan delighted the crowd with a spectacular night of song and storytelling dedicated to the women of rock and roll and produced under the auspices of Rave On Productions.

Though it didn’t explicitly have the title, this was a variation of Tara’s She Rocks show (coming soon to the SumTur Amphitheater in Papillion, NE).  Not only is it a revue of some of the classic songs from female rockers, it also serves as a testament to Vaughan’s awesome versatility.  Vaughan covers a slew of songs from a variety of performers ranging from Petula Clark to Amy Winehouse and whacked them all out of the park.

Outside of her insane talent as a singer and keyboardist, what I like best about Tara Vaughan is just her genuineness.  I agree with her manager, who calls her endearing.  She has a sweet, very shy, storytelling style as she talks about growing up, how she sing-narrates her life, and the stories of her friendships that just melt one’s heart like butter. 

But, ultimately, it’s all about the music and Vaughan delivers that and then some with her octane powered alto.  Highlights of Vaughan’s performance included her take on one of my all time favorite songs, Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”; a ripping cover of Linda Ronstadt’s cover of “When Will I Be Loved”; an energetic version of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie”; a spot on performance of Fleetwood Mac’s “Say You Love Me”; not to mention a fine performance of her original song “Blame it On My Youth”.

Vaughan is strongly supported by her amazing band which featured Adam Stoltenberg providing the backbeat on drums and Max Meyer heating up the night with sizzling lead guitar solos.  Ejanae Hume not only shines as a backup vocalist, but she also gets her own moments in the spotlight with a take on Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” which made me want to get up and dance with somebody and a splendid cover of The Supremes’ “Keep Me Hangin’ On”.  The Given McGuigans (and I stole that description from Vaughan), Ryan and Matthew, not only serve as Vaughan’s partners in comedic crime, but also soar with Ryan’s acoustic guitar and percussion work and Matthew’s bass playing.  Matthew McGuigan and Tara also have a very sweet duet with Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” which seems to serve as an ode to their own friendship.

If you missed this show, well, too bad for you.  Thanks for reading my review.

Of course, I jest.  If you missed this show, you’ve got another chance to see this divine diva of the ivories when She Rocks plays at SumTur Amphitheater in Papillion, NE from Sept 9-19.  Tickets are $20 for lawn seating and $35 for stadium seating and can be purchased at https://www.theomahaseries.com/sherocks.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 7pm.

If you’re ready for a bevy of hits from a mighty mistress of music, then you’re ready for Tara Vaughan.  She will rock your socks off.

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She Rocks! She Rocks, Indeed!!

World, Tara Vaughan has arrived and she is tearing it up at the Omaha Community Playhouse in her new show, Tara Vaughan’s She Rocks.

Produced under the auspices of Rave On Productions, Tara Vaughan’s She Rocks is a killer revue focusing on the legendary female artists and/or songwriters of the 60s-80s with a splash of the 90s and today thrown in for good measure.  In a thrilling night of rock and roll suitable for people of all ages and presenting artists of all eras, you’ll hear numbers from Linda Ronstadt, Heart, The Go-Gos, Fleetwood Mac, Sandie Shaw, Amy Winehouse, Sheryl Crow, and even an original tune written by Ms Vaughan herself.

Long known as a talented singer/songwriter (and the keyboardist & vocalist for the Rave On Productions), Ms Vaughan’s talent explodes in a stunning tour de force performance for this revue.  Tara Vaughan does not play music. . .she exudes it.  It’s as if the notes just come from the very depths of her soul and she then shares it with the audience with every fiber of her being and her incredible alto voice.

Kicking it off with the sweet, but melancholic “When Will I Be Loved?” by Linda Ronstadt, Ms Vaughan proceeded to demonstrate an unmatched versatility with an extremely diverse set that included the Sandie Shaw version of “Always Something There to Remind Me”, Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man”, Heart’s “Barracuda”, and Blondie’s “Call Me”.  But she could also slow it down with sensitive and moving songs such as a little Cass Elliot in “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie”, and Fifth Dimension’s “Wedding Bell Blues”.  However, I thought two of her best numbers in a night full of great ones were her take on Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” (a personal favorite song of mine) and her own original number written “in a similar vein of “You’re So Vain’”, “Blame it On My Youth”.

In between numbers, Ms Vaughan shared stories with the audience about the creation of the show, memories of her life, and gentle ribbing of her mother with a soft-spoken, almost shy stage presence that hooked the audience in from the first word.

The arrangement of the numbers gave the night’s music a familiar, but fresh feel and Ms Vaughan was epically supported by a powerful band which included Ryan McGuigan on keyboards, percussion, and backing vocals; Matthew McGuigan on bass and backing vocals (and a solo on The Supremes’ “Can’t Hurry Love”); Jess Errett on electric acoustic guitar and backing vocals (plus a solo with The Go-Gos “Head Over Heels”); Max Meyer, who provided some stellar solos on lead guitar, and Adam Stoltenberg on drums.  The night even included a guest appearance from Billy McGuigan who teamed up with Ms Vaughan to belt out Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”.

This is just a taste of what those of you lucky enough to have tickets to tonight’s sold out performance have in store for you.  And if you don’t have a ticket, don’t worry.  Tara Vaughan and She Rocks will return to the Omaha Community Playhouse in late June 2019 for a three week engagement.  Tickets go on sale November 20.  I promise you an experience you won’t forget and you will find that Tara Vaughan most.  Definitely.  Rocks!!!