Summer vacation is over and Palo Alto Players is ready to kick off the school year in lively style with its production of "School of Rock," featuring high-energy classroom antics, a gently rebellious spirit and some talented local youth.
The musical is based on the hit 2003 film of the same title, and follows Dewey Finn, a wannabe rock god who, when desperate for rent money and fired by his band, cons his way into a substitute teaching gig at a posh prep school. While he's originally just phoning it in for the (fraudulently gained) paycheck, Dewey discovers that his straight-laced, overachieving fifth graders are incredibly talented musicians. Soon he hatches a scheme to use them as a means of reaching his own dreams of rock stardom — teaching them rock 'n' roll technique, history and attitude while inevitably learning invaluable life lessons from the precocious kids along the way.
It's a story that resonates with director Doug Santana in part because he's also a teacher himself, currently serving as director of the performing arts at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose.
"The thing that I love about this show is that while Dewey is sort of an unlikely mentor, he ends up becoming a great teacher," Santana said. "He's taught them to express themselves creatively, he's allowed them to break free of the rules and regulations. That sort of theme — of the impact of a great teacher — has been fun. I hope that most people have had a teacher in their life that has been that impactful in some way. I know I have."
The show comes with a prestigious pedigree, with music by British theater icon Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater, and book by Julian Fellowes, better known for sumptuous period pieces such as "Downton Abbey."
"It has the same spirit the movie had that made it so popular — the kid-at-heart protagonist leading this other group of people who are misunderstood and looking for meaning in their life," Santana said. "That spirit really shines through on stage."
Fourteen original musical numbers join those featured in the film and — crucially — the children in the band actually play their own instruments live.
"To get to work with kids that have that special skill set is an incredibly unique experience," Santana said, of young musicians Adeline Anderson, Alex Pease, Rafael Frans and CJ Fernando. "We were pretty fortunate that all four of these kids showed up. I was certainly nervous about it because it was really important to all of us on the creative team that the kids play live, and they have to be special," he said. Anderson, who plays the role of bassist Katie, originally auditioned as a guitar player.
"What's incredibly impressive about her is, we asked her if she would be willing to learn the bass, basically in a week, for callbacks ... she was able to do that and play it with such confidence and personality, it sold us right away," he said.
Santana is a familiar face on the Bay Area theater scene, having starred in numerous productions as well as being a director — he's also the spouse of Palo Alto Players' Managing Director Elizabeth Santana, herself no stranger to local stages. But there's another talented member of the Santana clan: 10-year-old daughter Maddie, a South Bay children's theater veteran who's performing in "School of Rock" as student singer Marcy.
"It's been a great experience. I wasn't sure how that would go, to have daddy be the director." Santana said. "She doesn't ask for special treatment or attention, she's just one of the actors. To get a special view of your child doing something that they love every day is really unique," he said.
Jomar Martinez, one of 16 adult cast members, plays Dewey, a role seemingly tailor-made for the film's star, Jack Black. But it's a character that Martinez (who was recently seen in Palo Alto Players' "Allegiance") said he relates to on a personal level.
"We have so much in common. When I was in high school I really had this big dream of becoming a big rock star, similar to Dewey Finn," he said. When that didn't pan out, Martinez found a creative outlet in theater, and then educational theater, including with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.
While he said he brings a similar energy to the role as Black, "I think this musical does a very good job of adapting a lot of things from the movie but also separating itself from it. A lot of the stuff that is naturally me comes out as me, rather than me trying to do a version of Jack Black," he said. "For me to just make it my own — a lot of things in the script let me do that."
Martinez admitted that having to play a big guitar solo onstage is "a little bit nerve-wracking," but he's enjoying blending his rock background with his dramatic one. "A lot of the things I've done in theater have been bolstered by the fact that I have this known musicality to me," he said.
He's also enjoying working with the rest of the cast, especially his young co-stars who, he said, impress him not just with their talent but with their work ethic, patience and respectfulness. "You can trust these kids," he said (even when handing off his most precious guitar to them between scenes).
The 15 youth performers range in age from 10 to 14 and have been able to combine their musical and theatrical professionalism with good old-fashioned fun, Santana said, noting with a laugh that after a recent rehearsal at Lucie Stern Theater, "they all went to Rinconada Park and just goofed around for an hour on the playset, singing 'Stick it to the Man.'"
"Stick it to the Man," one of Dewey's lessons and one of the show's catchiest songs, is also part of one of Santana's favorite segments of the show, in which the kids and their rule-breaking teacher sneak off to audition for a battle of the bands.
"The joy of that song, the release of it, the sequence where they end up at the competition trying to convince the head of the competition to let them in, right now that's probably my favorite scene," he said. "It's a joy explosion."
And when Martinez was asked about his favorite moment, he named the finale, when Dewey steps aside and lets the kids take over.
"It really gets me every time because it really is their show," he said, speaking like a true teacher. "Getting to see them do their thing and shine as bright as possible."
"School of Rock" runs Aug. 27 to Sept. 11 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $30-$60 (pick-your-price $10-$40 tickets available for the Aug. 26 preview performance). More information is available at paplayers.org.
Related story: See what else is on the lineup this fall for Peninsula arts groups with our Fall Arts Preview.
on Sep 2, 2022 at 8:05 pm
on Sep 2, 2022 at 8:05 pm
lookinf forward to seeing the School of Rock !