There is tremendous amount of talent, and a long list of credits, behind School of Rock, the Broadway musical of version of the 2003 Jack Black comedy. Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the score. Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes wrote the book. Glenn Slater, who often works with composer Alan Menken, wrote the lyrics. And even the original movie was written by Mike White, who wrote the movie Chuck & Buck and the HBO series Enlightened, and directed by Richard Linklater, who made Boyhood and the Before Sunrise series.
And yet, without a doubt and by a long shot, the best things on the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre are the dozen or so unknown kids who steal the show, many of them making their Broadway debuts. They bring to what might otherwise be a dutiful screen-to-stage retread an inspiring jolt of energy, joy, whimsy, and — do the kids still say this? — mad skillz.
Dewey Finn (a hard-working Alex Brightman, channeling Jack Black, for better or worse) is an aspiring rock star, an overgrown kid, an out-of-shape, music-obsessed doofus. He lives with his best friend, Ned (Spencer Moses), a substitute teacher, and Ned’s girlfriend, Patty (Mamie Parris), and he hasn’t paid rent in months. He’s just been kicked out of his bar band, and the shrewish Patty is threatening to kick him out of the apartment if he can’t start paying rent. (“I’ve been mooching off you for years, and it’s never been a problem before,” he whines to Ned.) So when the principal of a tony private school calls, offering Ned a fill-in position, the unqualified Dewey poses as his roommate and takes the gig to pay the bills.
Ah, but is he really so unqualified? Dewey, you see, is passionate about music. And once he overhears his snooty and overscheduled charges in music class and realizes they know their way around Mozart, he decides to leverage those skills into an in-class rock band. It’s a way for him to compete in his beloved Battle of the Bands, sure, but it also becomes an experiential learning exercise. He teaches music history and music theory and along the way — this will no doubt come as a huge surprise — he teaches the kids to believe in themselves. He also manages to fall in love with the seemingly high-strung principal, Rosalie Mullins (Sierra Boggess, with too few chances to show off her knock-‘em-dead soprano), who’s secretly a rock lover who just wants to be liked.
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It’s all very obvious, sure. And the musical perhaps more so than the movie, with a first act number called “If Only You Would Listen,” in which, one by one, the kids are misunderstood and diminished by their overbearing parents. (Dewey, of course, listens.) There’s also something a bit rich about a musical praising the anti-authoritarian purity of rock ’n’ roll, with a recurring anthem (excellent, granted) called “Stick It to the Man,” created by a billionaire composer and landed-gentry author who both sit — as Tories! — in the British House of Lords.
But Lloyd Webber has written a fun, catchy, rock-ish score. (Don’t forget, he delivered the pop-pastiche Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and the arena rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar long before he turned to soaringly orchestral projects like Cats and Phantom of the Opera.) And if the plotlines about the adults feel leaden, when those kids — Dewey’s 10-year-old students — take the stage, School of Rock is a delight.
Jared Parker is Lawrence, a dorky kid in glasses who confesses he’s never been cool but gets a rock-god makeover behind the keyboards. Brandon Niederauer is Zack, whose high-powered dad never gets off his Bluetooth but who finds himself as a guitar player and songwriter. Tameka, played by Bobbi Mackenzie, has helicoptering gay dads and is too intimidated to speak; she finally opens her mouth and turns out to have the pipes of a diva. Luca Padovan’s Billy would rather read Vogue than watch the game with his dad; he becomes the costume designer who gets shaggy Dewey into a perfect grown-up schoolboy outfit for the big show. (The actual costumes, plaids for the kids and terrible sweaters for Dewey, are by Anna Louizos.) Imperious goodie-two-shoes Summer, played by Isabella Russo, turns out to be a perfect band manager. And that’s just some of them. The girls cast as backup singers are perfect, with moves that are just the right PG take on rock-show slithering and hip-shaking.
As directed by Laurence Connor, who has a long history with Lloyd Webber shows, the kids in the sprawling cast are funny, charming actors who sing spectacularly, dance enthusiastically (to JoAnn M. Hunter’s energetic, angsty-kids-rocking-out choreography), and even play their own instruments.
School of Rock isn’t perfect. But if, as the musical suggests, perfection is less the point than trying hard and having fun doing so, then it succeeds. There’s a bit in it, repeated from the movie, in which Dewey tries to convince the other teachers that he has an educational philosophy by lifting some lines from Whitney Houston. And if the children are in fact our future, School of Rock suggests we’re in pretty good hands. B+