Rockin’ On The Road

Rockin’ On The Road

Young actors energize WAC stage


The show currently on stage at the Walton Arts Center stands out for several reasons.

“School of Rock” is the Andrew Lloyd Webber Broadway musical based on the 2003 Jack Black film of the same name and is in the middle of its first national tour; the show features musical theater’s first ever kids rock band, as all the actors play their own instruments on stage; and the kids’ roles actually propel the story forward — they don’t exist solely as background characters or “living props,” as can be the case with so many children’s roles in theater.

Courtesy photo
“School of Rock” brings theater’s first ever kids’ rock band to the Walton Arts Center through Oct. 28.

“These kids are at the top of their game — they’re highly intelligent with razor sharp wit, have some of the most incredible work ethics that I’ve ever seen, and have an endless curiosity that is really inspiring to watch,” shares Melody Harnish, the lead child wrangler for the touring production.

When underage actors are part of a cast, a child wrangler is brought on to figure out the lay of each new theater, shepherd the young actors here and there back stage, stay on top of cues and exits for each of them, and basically serve as part nurse, part mediator and part stage manager to the youngsters. Harnish admits even she is still sometimes surprised by the many hats she wears, but one of her favorites, and possibly the most important, is part-time therapist.

“Being aged 10 to 13 is hard enough as it is, but when you ask a kid to function at a Broadway level of performance on top of figuring out how to maneuver junior high, there can be a lot of insecurities and questions that pop up,” she says. “Helping them figure out exactly who they are and who they want to become is, without a doubt, my favorite part of my job.”

Two of the young actors Harnish currently advises also took some time to answer a few questions for What’s Up! Grier Burke, as singer Tomika, and Theo Mitchell-Penner, as piano player Lawrence, both find themselves part of the band when wannabe rock star Dewey Finn poses as a substitute teacher at the kids’ school and recruits them for a Battle of the Bands contest.

Grier Burke

Q. Tell me about the experience of performing music while playing a character. How does your character’s personality affect the way you perform?

Grier: Singing a song in a recital is different than singing in the play because in the play I am telling my character’s story, and it’s gotta be full of emotion, and there is this buildup from the scenes before it.

Theo: Being Lawrence affects the way I perform music because he is so different than I am. He is quite nerdy and uptight, and so when I play the piano as him, I channel my classical training in order to play as Lawrence would. As Lawrence unleashes his inner rock star, I go to how I would normally play… Well, a bit more extravagantly.

Q. What parts of your character do you relate to or see in yourself?

Grier: I put myself in Tomika’s shoes and try to see the different possibilities and relate it back to my life and experiences. Even though I am very outgoing and not shy, I can sometimes be quiet and retreat and not feel very social. … I always think about what the other students in the play are thinking about me as Tomika in the first act. I like the first act even though I’m not singing because I get to quietly build Tomika’s character and confidence.

Theo: I feel there is a little bit of Lawrence in all of us. Everyone feels shy and not confident sometimes. Everyone feels like they don’t fit in sometimes.

Theo Mitchell-Penner

Q. What has your character or this show taught you about yourself, your craft or about the industry?

Grier: I love stepping into the shoes of this character for the time that I can. In this industry, it’s not just about my talent, it’s also about me being able to portray the character in a believable way. When I grow out of this character, I will be sure to open my arms to the next Tomika because that is the professional and right thing to do. You can only play a character for so long before you don’t look the part. I take care of my voice so that I can perform well every night for the audience for as long as I am in this role.

Theo: As I am the tour’s original Lawrence, I have been playing the part eight shows a week for over a year now. I have learned how important it is to keep actively listening and making new choices. A few months ago, I started doing a backbend during my solo, and it has evolved to become my signature move. I am really grateful to be working with and learning from my castmates and the creative team.



‘School of Rock’

WHEN — 8 p.m. Oct. 26; 2 & 8 p.m. Oct. 27; 2 p.m. Oct. 28

WHERE — Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville

COST — $38-$77

INFO — 443-5600,



Listen Here!

Walton Arts Center is offering a personal closed captioning system to patrons during the run of “School of Rock.” Patrons will download the GalaPro app on their phone, or have the option to check out an I-Caption device to use during the performance. The captioning is based on show’s script, so there is no delay. This is all free of charge, and for this show will replace the hearing assist system the venue currently has in place. All patrons need to do in order to try the system is ask about it when they arrive at the theater.

Categories: Music