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Pittsburgh native Gillooly rockin' Broadway in 'School of Rock'

| Monday, Nov. 27, 2017, 4:54 p.m.
Pittsburgh native Conner John Gillooly, a 2016 Point Park University grad, now plays Dewey Finn in the hit Broadway show 'School of Rock.'
Pittsburgh native Conner John Gillooly, a 2016 Point Park University grad, now plays Dewey Finn in the hit Broadway show 'School of Rock.'

Conner John Gillooly rocks! Which is exactly what the Pittsburgh native and 2016 Point Park University grad is doing these days on Broadway, recently taking over the lead role of Dewey Finn in the long-running “School of Rock,” at the Winter Garden Theatre.

Gillooly portrays the subpar substitute teacher who raises the bar for his band of fifth graders, teaching them to rock-out to life in this fun mosh-pit of a musical based on the much-beloved 2003 Jack Black movie. Gillooly is the alternate Dewey, playing matinees.

Until relatively recently, Gillooly was hitting his stride as a Point Park performer at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Just last year, he was part of a gang of actors performing at Pittsburgh venues to raise the $18,000 needed to take their production of “Dani Girl,” a 2014 musical penned by Carnegie Mellon University grads Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.

Now Gillooly is marking his Broadway debut, moving up to the lead after a short stint as part of the show's ensemble.

“I was in a fog,” he says of his reaction when told he got the role. “It blew my mind; it left part of my brain on the sidewalk. I mean I grew up in Pittsburgh on the music of Billy Joel, Queen, Tenacious D (a duo formed in 1994 by Black and Kyle Gass) and here I am playing a rocker on stage!”

Gillooly has loved performing since his early days at Bradford Woods and Cranberry elementary schools. By seventh grade, he had graduated to community theater and, he says, will always remember his first audition.

“I told such a stupid joke to get in,” he recalls. “A patient goes to the doctor who tells him he has memory loss. ‘Go home,' says the doctor, ‘and forget about it.' ”

That successful audition led to a host of memorable roles on the local level, including some involving nontraditional casting. “I was a Shark,” he laughs about being cast against type as a member of the Latino gang in a production of “West Side Story.”

“I had a really great time; it was like being part of an actor's troupe, with the same local actors taking part in all these different productions.”

He has fond memories of mentors who taught him humility, such as Toni Keefer, the now-retired chorus teacher at Seneca Valley Middle School. “She scared me,” he jokes about what he calls her no-nonsense approach to study. “She had parents sign (a pact) that each chorus student would practice 30 minutes each day. She made sure we would all practice.”

It worked on Gillooly … sort of. “A couple of times I forged my parents' signature. I hope she doesn't come after me for that.”

Gillooly made a point to continue building a varied performance background when he applied to college.

“The great thing about Point Park is I was allowed to take a lot of classes in multiple fields, such as acting, directing, clowning classes, absurdist classes,” he says. “It exposed me to a lot.”

Possibly the best exposure was the Showcase the university holds for its graduating seniors, in which they get a chance to travel to New York and perform before theater professionals. It worked for Gillooly: “I got an agent from it.”

His family, including his sister, Margaret — “my best friend, ... (and) the one in the family with the rockin' voice” — have made the trek to New York to see Gillooly.

What's so great about “School of Rock,” Gillooly says, is that the songs in his heart are those composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber, alongside lyrics by Glenn Slater and book by Julian Fellowes.

Michael Elkin is a Tribune-Review contributing writer, and an arts writer, playwright and author of the novel, “I, 95.”

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