Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical adaptation is fun, with many high points, but it can feel like it's playing catch-up
An iconic reputation and a continued, regular output of original work couldn’t keep Andrew Lloyd Webber from trudging through a dry period. In 2016, the legendary Broadway composer earned his first Tony nomination for Best Musical in more than two decades, dating back to 1995’s Sunset Boulevard. But his return to the prestigious category wasn’t for a phenomenon like Phantom of the Opera, or a powerhouse character study like Evita. It was, instead, for something rather forgettable: an adaptation of the Richard Linklater film School of Rock.
This isn’t to say Webber’s take on the well-liked comedy movie was bad, or even mediocre — only that, competing against the likes of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, it was a strange kind of production to help welcome such a definitive name back into the fold. School of Rock’s broad rock anthems and neat story arc fit well enough within Webber’s oeuvre, to be sure; but premiering against the backdrop of more innovative material, it didn’t exactly mark Broadway’s most exciting comeback.
And yet School of Rock has persevered, a successful spinoff now moving around the country. This past weekend the show’s official tour had its opening at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, its most high-profile launch on the West Coast so far.
What’s immediately clear is that, through various productions and iterations, the musical version of School of Rock struggles to recapture the magic of Jack Black. The original movie’s script, by Mike White, is closely adhered to by author Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey), and thus the story’s protagonist, flailing musician Dewey Finn, remains the kind of smarmy, energized, duplicitous, warm character that Black excelled at interpreting. In the musical’s Broadway run, Dewey was played by Tony nominee Alex Brightman, who served as a fine if unremarkable replacement. The same goes for the actor taking on the role here at the Pantages, Rob Colletti, a graceful presence who nonetheless seems to be playing catch-up. Perhaps that’s the primary issue: Dewey was so wholly Black’s creation that the versions since, provided by Brightman and Colletti, feel like mere imitations.
The story, for those unfamiliar, begins when Dewey impersonates his friend Ned (Matt Bittner) as a substitute teacher, only to identify real musical talent in his preppy students. Dewey’s first big number, “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock,” introduces his dream and the show’s amped-up tempo — an energy the show impressively maintains throughout — but the lyrics, by Glenn Slater, are more descriptive than imaginative (“And I’ll scatter hit singles all over the land; with my 12 Grammys in hand”), and the tone Colletti and Webber’s score sets verges on cloying. This is a problem School of Rock runs into repeatedly, struggling to find the right melody when it comes to its obnoxious main character.
But School of Rock does come alive. However hokey or safe, the production finds an enjoyable rhythm when it hands the story off to its young stars. Much has been made of the standout Act I number, “You’re in the Band,” in which the students’ particular skills are first revealed — and in this production, nicely directed by Laurence Connor, you see exactly why. The number moves, bumping around like a pinball in its prime from child to child, each showing off their chops with irresistible command. (All are worthy of praise, but particular props to Grier Burke, who plays Tamika with deadpan and who nails her emotional “Amazing Grace” performance.) From there, the rest of Act I sails smoothly. Act II is a little bumpy, predictably, given the business it needs to attend to regarding Dewey’s betrayal and the students’ impending Battle of the Bands performance.
There are other elements to appreciate here: There’s no one like Joan Cusack (who starred in the film), but Lexie Dorsett Sharp is a delight as Principal Rosalie Mullins, and the grand finale works better here than you might expect, a fittingly excessive cap to a production of big personalities and bigger guitar solos. Further, School of Rock’s underlying message of the importance of arts education carries far more weight than it did only two years ago. Even at its most engaging, however, this production still feels like it’s playing second fiddle to the movie which birthed it. This School of Rock is still struggling to establish its own identity. B