North High School’s ‘Rock of Ages’ Delivered Real-Life Connections

By Erika Taylor

Sherrie, played by Alicia Leyba-Valdez, and Drew, played by Tate Dewhurst, sing “Waiting for a Girl Like You” as “Rock of Ages’” Hollywood star-crossed lovers. Photo by Richard Saxon

Cast, understudies, set construction, stage crew, lighting and sound crews, vocal direction, dance, choreography, direction, technical direction, music student directors, stage management, sponsor relations, fundraising… 125 moving parts.

Staging “Rock of Ages” at North High School was a Herculean task, even before a snowpocalypse arrived to cancel school and opening night on Thursday, March 14. When a second snow day was called for Friday, it seemed the entire production was in jeopardy.

Preparations for the school’s spring musical began in December and were meant to culminate in a single weekend of performances. Unlike sports, if a theater performance is canceled, it’s unlikely to be rescheduled. But before disappointment could fully set in, North staff jumped into action.

Principal German Echevarría went to bat with the district. Students performed a full four shows, despite the storm and shuttered school buildings, ending with a free Monday night performance packed with students and staff.

“This is the playoffs!” Echevarría said. “You can’t cancel the playoffs.” 

“All students are encouraged to participate in theater and join the thespian family which, for many of them, is their haven from a sometimes chaotic world,” theater director Megen Gilman said.

Gilman’s dedication to inclusion has drawn students to both the school and the arts program, as evidenced by its bursting-at-the-seams student population. At North, if you want to be involved in the spring musical, there is a place for you. Enabling students to experience the arts regardless of their experience or ability level is key to the program’s success.

In December, Gilman won the Denver Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Arts & Culture for Youth, an honor bestowed on an “individual or organization that has significantly impacted the lives of youth in the City and County of Denver through the arts.”

A teacher in Denver Public Schools for more than 20 years, Gilman has led North’s theater program for the past 11. When she arrived on the scene, the theater program was nearly nonexistent, but her commitment to giving students creative freedom and a safe space, alongside her belief that all students can be performers, brought theater back to life at North.

You might think this approach leads to the kind of school performances where parents are the only ones clapping, where “participation ribbon” performances sacrifice quality in favor of making sure everyone gets a turn. You would be mistaken.

From the first glimpse of the set, the audience for “Rock of Ages” was hooked. 

“Is that band set up ON stage?” 

“Whoa, did the kids make that neon?”

“Oh my gosh, those concert posters are from other shows they did here.” 

All that before the band played its first note and a bathroom door setpiece made its appearance. The piece, on wheels that revolved around to reveal, you guessed it, a full bathroom, would go on to feature one of the musical’s most pivotal scenes.

As the lights came up and the band began playing from its elevated spot on the first floor of the two-story set, the audience met Lonny, the unfalteringly energetic host for the evening. With the first mash-up of famous ’80s rock tunes, the crowd was reeled in. If you were the right age in the 1980s, you knew every word to every song in the show. And while the small-town-girl-in-L.A.-to-make-it-big-gets-caught-in-love-triangle story may be cliche, it was compelling. The audience wants Sheri to end up with the good guy.

Anita Bath, played by Greta Chiodini, leads the protest against evil developers in the song “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Photo by Richard Saxon

And the story had a twist many in North Denver have become familiar with. 

“Rock of Ages” is not just a love story between characters, but a love story about a place. When out-of-town developers arrive with a diabolical plan to demolish L.A.’s Sunset Strip and replace the Bourbon Room (a rock’n’roll venue based loosely on L.A.’s famous Whiskey a Go-Go) with a frozen yogurt shop and a Foot Locker, the cast sets about saving it. 

It was not lost on the students that a sponsor of their production, The El Chapultepec Legacy Project, received word the weekend of their show that the El Chapultepec building, a cherished downtown music venue that closed in 2020, would be torn down despite efforts by Historic Denver and community members to protect it. Neon protest signs brandished during the Twisted Sister “We’re Not Gonna Take It” numbers in the show would have fit in at real-life protests attempting to save El Chapultepec.

I won’t spoil the ending. If you missed North’s production and you like ’80s rock, I hope you’ll see it someday. But I can’t imagine a better production than the one this crew put on. 

The audience was raucous in its applause and effusive in praise during the intermission and after the show. In the end, the school delivered sold-out shows in an auditorium that seats nearly 800 and a thrilling, Monday-night finale for students and school staff.

North’s production of “Rock of Ages” was the place to be, if you wanted to see skilled singers, dancers and actors showcased by wonderfully precise and fun choreography, engaging stage direction, professional level musicians, wonderfully enhancing lighting on a set with something new to notice in every moment and costumes that captured the neon/acid wash/shoulder pad wonder that was the 80s. If you wanted to see a show that would have an audience clapping along the whole time and on its feet in ovation before the final number had even finished. 

The “Rock of Ages” cast performs “Don’t Stop Believin’” at curtain call. Photo by Richard Saxon

This was the place. 

Not because of the building, but because of the people who work and learn in it, people who are dedicated to creating opportunities for connection. Teachers to students. Students to their learning, and to each other. Students to themselves, and who they can be in a team. The performing arts program to the school. The arts to real life. The school to the broader community. Connections that matter. 

Gilman said she hopes that the community will see what North is producing and that parents will think, “I don’t have to go outside the district, I don’t have to go across town to a specialized program. My kid can go to North and feel part of something.”

Echevarría said he understands the importance of the arts in schools, as well as the magic of teachers who strive to get the best from their students.

“She sees everything that’s good about them, and then they see that,” Echevarría said of Gilman. “They see that she is invested in them and then they reciprocate that.” 

“As teachers it would be easier to put on performances that require a lot less care and effort,” music director and teacher Grant Stringham said, “but we always seek to push the envelope and to challenge ourselves which I think is important for our students to see.

“Can it be absurdly stressful sometimes?” Stringham added. “Absolutely … but the rewards of seeing the kids giving their all during the performances and wowing the audiences far outweighs the stress.”

One-hundred-twenty-five moving parts all headed in one direction: to entertain us and remind us that connection and a sense of place matter.

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