Photo by Liz Lauren
Sometimes there is an absolutely perfect match between a show and a director, and that is what has happened with School of Rock at Paramount Theatre in Aurora. Paramount’s prolific Trent Stork takes us to school for their 22nd production at the venue, and the subject is Musical Direction 101. Stork, a master teacher, takes on a musical that calls for a lead actor who is onstage for almost the entire show (most of the time singing and playing guitar) along with multiple child actor/singers with serious rock skills, and makes it all look easy.
The show, based on the 2003 movie with Jack Black, doesn’t even pretend to be serious—its story involves an out-of-work guitarist in his 30s whose biggest dream is to win a Battle of the Bands—but it is a heck of a challenge for the cast and creatives. Nick Druzbanski plays this lifelong loser and, while it would be easy to dislike a grown man mooching off of his best friend without even trying to find work, the sincerity of his love of rock allows us to overlook his numerous character flaws as well as his gross deceit as he pretends to be his substitute teacher friend to take a job in a prestigious school…because he needs the money desperately.
Let’s not worry about how this sort of thing could possibly happen since we know it couldn’t, and let’s also overlook how the faux teacher manages to hold onto the job for more than a few minutes when he has no clue what he is doing and is too lazy even to fake it well. Most of all, let’s utterly ignore that this all happens in a top-level school right under the eyes of the (apparently competent) principal and the (presumably excellent) faculty while Druzbanski’s substitute does nothing but get his class to play loud music every day…and he is not even a music teacher.
Going by his friend’s name (Mr. Schneebly), Druzbanski’s Dewey Finn has no pretensions other than making what he thinks will be easy money as the extremely motivated students in his class basically teach themselves. His interest is piqued, though, when he discovers that the class contains several extremely talented young musicians, and so what if they only play classical; Dewey knows music well enough to sense that, if he can get them to open their minds to it, this group may well be the key to the Battle of the Bands title that has eluded him and kept him more of a child than a man for his entire “adult” life.
The kids are uniformly wonderful performers. No matter which group you see in this rotating cast, you’re in for a treat. Whether it is the hyperfocused and overachieving Summer (brilliantly performed by Omi Lichtenstein on the night I saw the show), the stunningly powerful voice of Tomika (Kayla Norris), or any of the other members of “Mr. Schneebly’s” rock band, you’ll be amazed at just how good these young actors and musicians are. And as Dewey brings them all on board for his insane experiment, totally letting their actual lessons slide in his pursuit of rock dreams, a wonderful thing happens: these formerly uptight, overly controlled kids discover that there are kinds of education beyond memorizing things and taking tests that are just as important and maybe even more.
Besides the kids, Stork has filled their play with a high-quality cast. As the real Ned Schneebly, Jackson Evans manages to take both nerd and geek to the highest levels while Lucy Godinez, as his partner, is the perfect foil for Dewey’s laid-back way of living, not even trying to hide her contempt and vitriol for him. (Her harridan-like persona is another reason we are on Dewey’s side from the start.) In addition, Veronica Garza’s Principal Rosalie Mullins is an absolute joy as she too discovers the power of the dark side, and Mary Robin Roth is hilarious in a mostly wordless role as the officious Mrs. Sheinkopf.
Michelle Lilly’s scaffold-based set is a multi-story work of art capable of being whatever Stork wants it to be—and they and choreographer Isaiah Silvia-Chandley use it very creatively indeed—and, especially when it is highlighted by Greg Hofmann’s vibrant lighting, it is a perfect setting for a rock show…or a play about one. Izubi Inaba’s costumes too are spectacular: they are often extreme, but that is what this show demands. It’s a rock and roll fever dream; it can’t be overdone.
School of Rock is playing at Paramount Theatre, 23 East Galena Blvd in Aurora, until May 28. Tickets are available at the Paramount website. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.