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THEATER REVIEW

Review: 'School of Rock' at Omaha Community Playhouse gets 'A' for fun

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The theater that became known as the Omaha Community Playhouse gave its first performance on March 4, 1925: an informal vaudeville-style variety show and a one-act playlet called "Trifles."

Omaha might be one of the best places off Broadway to produce “School of Rock,” a musical with a large cast of both adults and kids that’s now playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

In addition to fine public schools, we have an abundance of arts education for children through the Playhouse, Omaha Performing Arts, the Omaha Conservatory of Music, the McGuigan Arts Academy and the Rose Theater, among many other organizations.

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We also have a talented cadre of adult performers who make casting both easy (because of the depth of skill) and difficult (how do you choose between actors, in some cases.)

And the Playhouse itself has a 98-year history of creating quality shows, especially musicals. Until recently, the bulk of the participants were unpaid volunteers.

Sounds like the perfect ingredients for success. And director Stephen Santa knew how to combine them into a funny two-plus-hour show that should please every member of your household.

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Vivian Rase is Summer and Oakland Anderson is Zack in “School of Rock” at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

I was a little skeptical. From the outside looking in, it sometimes seems like a recipe for disaster when a production depends on a large group of kids. (Am I right, parents?)

But this batch of young performers is obviously prepared — nearly no detectable flubbed lines or cues, great ensemble dancing and singing, and more energy than I can muster up in a week. They’re so tight-knit that they could be real-life schoolmates. Credit Santa and music director Jim Boggess for molding them into shape.

And the adults miss very few paces keeping up with the kids.

The musical, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater and a book by Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”) is based on the 2003 movie with the same name starring Jack Black and Joan Cusack.

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Left to right, Thomas Gjere is Dewey, Vivian Rase is Summer and Oakland Anderson is Zack in “School of Rock” at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

The lead character, Dewey Finn, is a desperate out-of-work guitarist who poses as a substitute teacher at a tony private school. He imparts his passion for rock ‘n’ roll to the students, and discovers a lot of talent (and some misunderstood kids) in his classroom. He decides to cash in on their skills by entering them in a battle of the bands without the knowledge of principal, parents and his fellow educators.

When I heard last spring that the musical was on the Playhouse lineup, I immediately thought of an Omaha actor I had seen in previous shows such as “The Bridges of Madison County,” “Once” and “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.”

Thomas Gjere, I decided, would make a great Dewey. He has the vocal chops, the look, the energy and the versatility to play the role.

Santa and his Playhouse colleagues agreed with me, and Gjere brought all that and more to the stage.

Though Dewey is something of a slacker, Gjere makes him extremely appealing and multi-dimensional — there’s more to him than guitars and video games, and you learn that in his interactions with the kids and Rosalie Mullins, the strict principal.

Lauren Krupski, who plays Rosalie, has a beautiful soprano voice that made me wish she had more solos. Her big ballad, “Where Did the Rock Go,” was absolutely sublime. And she portrayed Ms. Mullins with a sweet and endearing vulnerability.

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Thomas Gjere has the vocal chops, look, energy and versatility to play Dewey Finn, a role played by Jack Black in the “School of Rock” movie.

The kids are led by Oakland Anderson as guitarist Zack Mooneyham and Vivian Rase as Summer, the band manager. Five young cast members — Oakland, Emmitt DeWater, Whitney Ingvoldstad, Johnathon Kreiling and Liam Richardson — play guitars, piano and drums live onstage, prompting audience members to burst from their seats and scream as though they were at an actual concert.

The only thing missing was a barrage of Bic lights from fans begging for an encore.

Vivian doesn’t play an instrument, but she ably delivers the wordy song that opens the second act. She has a lot of fun playing her uptight, Type A character. She’s fearless.

Other adults who deserve mention include Jonathan Berger as Dewey’s easily swayed friend Ned, and Elizabeth Avery as Patty Di Marco, Ned’s pushy girlfriend.

Steven L. Williams created a great set that encompassed several locales at once, flanked by tall towers decorated with records. Lindsay Pape created the perfect school uniforms for a snooty private school that contrasted with Dewey’s grunge attire.

The show dragged a bit in a couple of classroom scenes, more due to the script than to the actors. The high-energy music and movement more than made up for those short intervals.

I haven’t seen such an enthusiastic audience at the Playhouse since before the pandemic. The theater was absolutely electric, and people were nearly dancing on their way out.

“School of Rock” is a certified hit.

Theater Reviews by Betsie Freeman

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Betsie covers a little bit of everything for The World-Herald's Living section, including theater, religion and anything else that might need attention. Phone: 402-444-1267.

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