Jaxon Mitchell plays Billy in Paramount Theatre’s School of Rock, based on the hit Jack Black movie, with new music from Andrew Lloyd Webber, directed by Trent Stork. Performances are April 12-June 4, 2023. Opening Night is Friday, April 21 at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, visit paramountaurora.com, or call (630) 896-6666. Photo credit: Amy Nelson

It’s been 20 years since Jack Black taught us about the transformative power of rock-and-roll music in the now classic film,” School of Rock.” With a cast of talented young actors and musicians, the story uses humor, heart and, of course, an amazing soundtrack to remind us all to let our freak flags fly. 

Well, class is back in session. Starting April 21 at Paramount Theatre in Aurora, audiences can revisit these characters in the musical adaptation of “School of Rock.” For extra credit, nine of the child actors come from the western suburbs. These kids beat out kids all over the country to land one of the 21 youth roles in the musical. Rock on, indeed. 

Wednesday Journal had the opportunity to interview the young rock stars ahead of opening night. Six of the kids are from Oak Park, while River Forest and Forest Park each have a rocker of their own in the mix. Many studied at Ovation Academy before being cast in the professional stage production. All nine agree that “School of Rock” is more fun than regular school.

“It’s just super-fun because you’re dancing and singing with your friends,” said Clare Wols, of River Forest. “And it’s really high energy.”

Wols, who attends Roosevelt Middle School, plays back-up singer Marcy, a role she shares with Maya Keane, a student at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park. Marcy may not be familiar to movie superfans, as some of the names of the characters were changed for the musical. 

“It’s such a lighthearted show,” Keane said.

The musical retains the film’s spirit — sweet but not cloying, silly but grounded. All of the kid cast members told Wednesday Journal the musical is just as good as the movie, which they’ve all seen. 

“I just think it’s so cool that I get to perform the musical version of one of my favorite movies,” said Oak Park’s Meena Sood. 

The musical, like the film, follows loafer and wannabe rock star Dewey Finn, who gets kicked out of his band for obnoxious and selfish behavior, such as 20-minute guitar solos. Down on his luck and in need of rent money, Finn takes a substitute teaching gig and does so, despite being completely unqualified, posing as his good-natured pushover roommate Ned Schneebly. In the film, Schneebly is played by Mike White, who wrote the screenplay.

Finn is, at first, totally uninterested in teaching his upper-crust prep school students but is inspired to put a band together after seeing them perform during music class. Spoiler alert: the kids are naturals and with a little prodding from Finn, they become confident enough to advocate for themselves, even standing up to their pushy, helicopter parents. The stage musical goes further on this than the film does, according to Wols. 

The kids help Finn in equal measure. As they become more confident in expressing themselves, Finn becomes less egocentric and more responsible as their substitute teacher. 

“He thought he would be a horrible teacher,” said Oak Park fourth-grader and cast member Eli Vander Griend. “The kids didn’t trust him and at first they didn’t like him, but then they realized he was a good person and he taught in a different way.”

Forest Park’s Lily Martens, a student at St. Luke in River Forest, confirmed this take, adding that Finn gets a much-needed boost of confidence through teaching the kids.

“I think he finally learns he is worth so much more than people have told him he was worth,” said Martens, who understudies for the band’s keyboardist character Lawrence and plays a band security guard.

Finn’s charm works its magic on the tightly wound school principal, Ms. Mullens, who learns to let loose a little. Mullens is a favorite character of Oak Parker Savannah Lumar, who plays one of the students on band security detail.

“Mullens just has so much emotion inside,” said Lumar. “And she has a lot of funny moments.”

  Some of the film’s most memorable moments are transformed into songs in the musical, with music composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics from Glenn Slater. Julian Fellowes, of “Downton Abbey” fame, wrote the book.

 This doesn’t mean the audience won’t hear some favorite lines. Oak Park’s Jaxon Mitchell, who plays band stylist Billy, gets to lob his movie counterpart’s famous insult at Finn: “You’re tacky and I hate you.”

That’s Mitchell’s favorite line, but he says in real life he’s more like the shy lead guitarist Zach than the character he plays. The best part for Mitchell of being in School of Rock is sharing the stage with his friends.

“It’s really cool being in one show together,” the Brooks Middle School student said.

The adult actors and the director also keep things fun for the kids by having special themed rehearsal days and treats, such as wearing pajamas and getting ice cream. These rewards are earned when the kids get the qualifying number of gold stars on the gold-star chart. They earned every possible award, including pieing director Trent Stork in the face. 

“They put whipped cream on a plate and then we got to smoosh it against their face,” said Brookfield’s Genevieve Jane, who plays one of the band’s backup singers.

Each kid got their own whipped cream pie, meaning Stork took 21 pies to the face.

“And some extra,” Jane clarified.

The show itself is just as much fun as the backstage shenanigans, testifies Roxy Salzman, another Oak Park kid. “School of Rock” is Salzman’s professional musical debut, and she couldn’t be happier to be in this particular production.

“It’s just a genuinely good show,” she said. “It’ll make you laugh; it’ll make you cry. There’s just so many layers to it.”

Come stick it to the man and rock out with these young stars at Paramount Theatre. “School of Rock” opens April 21 and runs through the end of May. 

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