Lauren Kennedy remembers idolizing childhood friend Liz McDonald every summer at the North Carolina Theatre’s kids’ camp. She was especially jealous when Liz, at the age of 11, was cast as a dancing cat and Lauren, 8 at the time, was a lowly frog in a camp performance.
It’s a humorous image, given that they’re now show business veterans. After finding success in New York City, both McDonald and Kennedy are back in Raleigh. They’re joining forces on their first co-production, “Rock of Ages,” which will be presented Sept. 7-10 at Cary’s Koka Booth Amphitheatre.
“People our age are going to just flock to it because it’s the music of our generation,” Kennedy said.
The musical includes hits like Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” and Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.”
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McDonald and Kennedy have come a long way from belting on the stage of Memorial Auditorium for a crowd of parents who barely filled a section of the venue. McDonald has produced shows, including a tour of “Chicago: The Musical” in Italy and a tour of “Blues Clues Live!” in the United States. Kennedy, meanwhile, has starred in “Spamalot” and “Les Miserables” on Broadway.
“It is wild, because Liz and I have that history together when we were tiny children and then stayed in contact through the years,” Kennedy said. “All of the people who were involved in North Carolina Theatre at that very embryonic stage had this really interesting connection and still do.”
Kennedy founded Theatre Raleigh in 2008 while living in New York City, returning home to Raleigh four years later to run it and raise her family. (Her married name is Lauren Kennedy Brady.) The company performs in downtown Raleigh’s intimate Kennedy Theatre in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. Kennedy Theatre is named for Lauren Kennedy’s parents, Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, who are longtime donors to the arts.
McDonald returned in January 2016 to be general manager of Booth Amphitheatre. The amphitheater hasn’t hosted a theatrical production in almost a decade, and the last show was a summer Shakespeare production, she said.
“ ‘Rock of Ages’ is accessible to a much wider audience because everybody loves that kind of music,” McDonald said.
And with its emphasis on ’80s glam, complete with a band on a stage, the show will have a bit of a concert feel. As for that unknown variable – weather that could rain on the outdoor venue – Kennedy said, “You just do a rain dance and you cross your fingers and you go. But I think it’s going to be fine.”
A natural choice
The show, written by Chris D’Arienzo, opened on Broadway in 2009 and was a natural choice for the two friends to collaborate on. Songs like Steve Perry’s “Oh Sherrie” and Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” shaped their high school experiences, after all.
McDonald and Kennedy were also shaped by N.C. Theatre, founded in 1983 by De Ann Jones.
While the grownups in the company were putting together shows like “Camelot” and “West Side Story,” the kids were learning to dance and sing at N.C. Theatre’s four-week summer camp.
McDonald has many memories from camp performances: playing Mother Abbess at age 10 in a camp performance of “The Sound of Music” and a dancing cat (costumed in a black bowler hat with ears attached) at age 11 in Ira David Wood III’s “Briarpatch,” about the adventures of Br’er Rabbit.
Kennedy remembers the anguish of having her solo as a frog in “Briarpatch” cut because she wasn’t loud enough (she doesn’t have that problem anymore).
Jones was like a second mother and would invite the kids to her house for pool parties, McDonald and Kennedy said. They described spending time with the other theater kids as finding their “tribe.”
“We found our people,” Kennedy said. “What we experienced at the N.C. Theatre in our summer theater arts school with De Ann Jones, who was so important to both of us, to me it made such an impact. ... You get to the point where you want to make the same kind of impact on other people that De Ann Jones made on us.”
Growing up, Kennedy and McDonald dreamed of getting out of Raleigh.
McDonald’s first taste of touring with a theater company was as a 14-year-old actress in Wood’s “A Christmas Carol.” But while touring again post-college, she remembered how much she enjoyed working in the offices at North Carolina Theatre as a teen.
“I would talk as passionately about that aspect of the business (as) I did of performing,” McDonald said. “After college, I started performing, and I went out on the road for some tours. ... I almost immediately started thinking ‘This isn’t for me.’ Something felt wrong. Something felt off, and it finally occurred to me that I wanted to be on the business side of the performing arts.”
She worked on dozens of shows for multiple companies before signing on with venue management company SMG in 2013. SMG made McDonald general manager of Koka Booth Amphitheatre in 2016, and now the “hip” (Kennedy’s description) city of Raleigh and its native talent have her and Kennedy’s attention.
“So much of the joy of doing this show is being able to work with (McDonald) too and reconnect,” Kennedy said. “Our roots are so similar, and we’ve just meshed so easily in terms of collaboration.”
Evie Fordham: @eviefordham 919-829-4654
What: “Rock of Ages” musical presented by Theatre Raleigh
When: Sep. 7-10. Gates open at 6:30 p.m. Show begins at 8 p.m.
Where: Koka Booth Amphitheatre, 8003 Regency Parkway, Cary
Cost: $35 reserved seats and reserved table seats, $22.50 general admission lawn. Children 2 and under are free on the lawn. Note: Reserved table seats are covered by a roof and are behind the lawn seats. Reserved seats closest to the stage are not covered by a roof.
Suitable: For ages 16 and up.
More info: www.theatreraleigh.com 919-832-9997.