|Max Nevers ("Dewey") with ensemble. Photo by Frank Hunt.|
By Tina Arth
For sheer, unbridled energy nothing beats a stage full of tweens and teens giving their all to a rock musical. STAGES Performing Arts Youth Academy taps into this excitement with School of Rock, The Musical – Youth Production. Director and choreographer Luis Ventura, vocal director Barbara Edwards, and music director Joe Aloia have done a great job of molding 28 young actors into a raucously cohesive unit that swarms over the stage at Hillsboro High.
It’s actually quite a coup for STAGES to have gotten the rights – while the full musical is playing on Broadway, only a small number of theaters nationwide are cleared to do the Youth Production; STAGES is the only theater group in Oregon to have earned this privilege. There are strings – they must use a live band (no karaoke allowed!) and they need more audience capacity than HART, where they usually do their shows, can offer. The show is based on the popular 2003 movie starring Jack Black, and playwright Julian Fellowes retains much of the feel of the movie. While some of the movie’s original songs are retained, many of the show’s songs were newly written by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Glenn Slater.
The story revolves around failed rock singer/guitarist Dewey Finn (just kicked out of the band “No Vacancy”). To earn some cash, he poses as substitute teacher Ned Schneebly at the elite, private Horace Green School. Within a short time, Dewey wins over the skeptical kids in his class – they become his co-conspirators, pretending to be learning mathematics while Dewey is actually transforming them into a rock band, a hard-headed manager, back-up singers, and roadies worthy of the upcoming Battle of the Bands. After some early clashes with principal Rosalie Mullins, Dewey discovers the uptight woman’s two weaknesses – beer and Stevie Nicks – and ultimately gets her support of his unorthodox activities. In a moment reminiscent of both The Music Man and The Mighty Ducks, the underdogs prevail, horrified parents become ardent fans, and kids with low self-esteem find themselves accepted and loved.
In a huge cast, a few roles and performances are real standouts. Caitriona Johnston (“Principal Mullins”) is a confident and dynamic actor, and she handles the vocal demands of the role with ease. Max Nevers (“Dewey”) is at his best when showing off his dancing (and leaping, and falling) skills – his vocals are sometimes rough, but the role does not demand a perfect voice (he is, after all, playing a rock star). Rylie Bartell (as the painfully shy new girl, “Tomika”) is a joy to watch and listen to as she finds her voice and earns a solo with her lovely rendition of “Amazing Grace.” While Jolee Morris (“Summer”) doesn’t have a big singing role, she does a fine job of transforming herself from an uptight, Harvard-bound snob to a fiercely determined band manager.
The cast and crew make good use of William Crawford’s simple, flexible set design. Costumes (designed by Luis Ventura) are effective at capturing the elite private school ambiance.
On the night I saw the show, there were some problems with the microphones that made it difficult to understand all of the lyrics (and even some dialogue). While the pit band does a great job of capturing a pounding rock ”wall of sound” effect, they might be well advised to turn down the amplifiers to accommodate the weaker microphone system if these problems persist.
The STAGES program does a great job of offering opportunities for Washington County kids to work on and around live theater stages. Productions like School of Rock are a great argument for providing arts in our schools and communities, and the best way to show your support is to go see the show. I promise you’ll have a good time!
STAGES production of School of Rock – Youth Production is playing at Hillsboro High School, 3825 SE Rood Bridge Rd. through Sunday, November 20th with shows at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and matinees at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.