Fast-paced School of Rock finishes Muni season

Murder on the Orient Express deserves an encore at Theatre in the Park

click to enlarge Fast-paced School of Rock finishes Muni season
Dewey Finn, played by Ryle Frey, right, teaches Katie Travis, played by Simran John, how to turn her classical cello abilities into rock ’n roll bass skills.

Two shows opened last weekend in area outdoor theaters: the one-weekend-only run of Agatha Christie's Murder On the Orient Express at New Salem's Theatre in the Park and School of Rock at the Muni Opera (running Aug. 10 to Saturday, Aug. 12).

Muni Opera's production of School of Rock is a stage version of the popular 2003 movie; movie-to-stage has become the norm for Broadway the past several years with Legally Blonde; Tootsie; Mrs. Doubtfire; Groundhog Day; Beetlejuice and Back to the Future.

Muni strives to stay current with new shows, and School of Rock fits the bill. The musical is a great showcase for kids, though it is not really a young "kids" show. Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey, The Gilded Age) wrote the script, with music by Andrew Lloyd Weber and lyrics by Glen Slater. I had a blast watching the fast-paced show, and it's a musical with a lot of heart at its center.

The stage musical follows the movie plot, with a great, frazzle-dazzle frenetic performance by Ryle Frey as Dewey Finn, a failed, wannabe rock musician who somehow wrangles a substitute job teaching a group of high-achieving middle-school students at an expensive prep school. It's not long till Finn takes on the missionary zeal of teaching the students about the glories of rock music, and, of course, they create their own rock band. Do they ever!

The genius kids in the school are each dealing with their own issues and the arrival of this rocker substitute teacher changes their lives. There are about 20 kids in this very tightknit ensemble, each playing a character and each giving incredible performances. There is a huge array of talent there, and each one of them shines.

There were several moments during the show that reminded me of the classic, The Music Man. In that show, con man Harold Hill gets the kids of a small early 1900s town excited about being in a band that doesn't exist. After young Winthrop realizes there might not be a band and confronts Hill about it, Hill responds with "That's why I wanted you in the band, so you'd quit moping about, feeling sorry for yourself." Winthrop asks, "What band?" And Hill answers, "I always think there's a band, kid."

There's even a nod to Music Man's Marian-the-librarian character. In School of Rock, she's the stressed-out school principal, played by the powerful singer/actor Alyssa Shultz. She and Ryle are great together. And the show is helped by the talented ensemble of adults playing multiple character roles, always keeping things interesting.

Jeremy and Sara Goeckner direct the show, assisted by Judy McEvoy, with vocal direction by Sara Goeckner. All three bring out the best in this large cast. Anna Harkey's choreography is exuberant and high-octane; and Blake Martin's band in the pit does amazing work; a great, loud sound all around.

School of Rock performances start at 8:30 p.m. (

click to enlarge Fast-paced School of Rock finishes Muni season
Photo credit: Mike Sullivan
Bouc (Mike Schneider), Countess Andrenyi (Cynthia Higginson), Michel (Aiden Garland-Sutter), Helen Hubbard (Cathy Doyle), Princess Dragomiroff (Felicia Coulter), Greta Ohlsson (Deb Van de Voort), Colonel Arbuthnot (Graham Kinley), Mary Debenham (Rachel Bridges), and Hector McQueen (Danny Lee) anxiously await Hercule Poirot's (Jim Yale) solution to the whodunnit.

Murder On the Orient Express, based on the 1934 Agatha Christie novel (and movie adaptations) is a new version for the stage by playwright Ken Ludwig, a master of the modern-day stage farce (Lend Me a Tenor; Moon Over Buffalo). It's too bad the Theatre in the Park production only played one weekend of performances, because it boasted a fun, game cast, with a good mix of new and veteran actors, directed by Kim Shafer.

Agatha Christie has continued to remain popular today, all these years later. She was also a master of her game, with outlandish plots. She was able to turn the tables with enough twists to give the reader whiplash. Jim Yale is a longtime New Salem actor who is quite versatile. He played Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird a few years ago and is now Christie's famous detective, Hercule Poirot. The ensemble cast featured some longtime favorites, including Felicia Coulter, Cynthia Higginson, Cathy Doyle, Bruce Davidson, Rachel Bridges, Mike Schneider, Danny Lee, Graham Kinley, Deb Van de Voort, Michael Savage, Aiden Garland-Sutter.

Unfortunately, the final performance Sunday was canceled due to the weather. This might be one to consider for an encore. The Theatre in the Park team deserves gratitude for bringing plays to central Illinois audiences this summer.

I also had the chance to see recent excellent productions of The Tempest and The Book of Will at Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Normal outdoors at Ewing Manor, as well as a charming production of Driving Miss Daisy starring Chicago actress Glory Kissell at The Little Theatre On the Square in Sullivan. It's looking like summer theater is close to coming back to pre-pandemic days. I look forward to next year.

Phil Funkenbusch of Havana enjoys outdoor theater as a gathering of community. He is currently working on a theater piece from Wendell Berry short stories. Phil can be reached at [email protected].

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