By Michael Hillyer
Disclaimer: I should mention at the outset that I am not really much of an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan. I loved Jesus Christ, Superstar, but hey, that was well over forty years ago. Since then I have either avoided and/or hated Cats, Evita, Aspects Of Love, Phantom of the Opera, as well as the unlamented Starlight Express. There you have it. Having said that, if you enjoyed the 2003 Richard Linklater picture, School Of Rock, written by Mike White and starring Jack Black, then I encourage you to hurry to the box office at the Winter Garden Theater while there are still some tickets left for School Of Rock, The Musical. What if you didn’t see the film, but you like rock music? Ditto. Why? Because you’re probably gonna love School Of Rock, The Musical, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater, and script by Julian Fellowes.
The creative team assembled by Lord Lloyd Webber and the Really Useful Company to translate this hit comedy film to the stage has absolutely nailed it. Fans of the film will enjoy the over-the-top decibel level afforded by the live stage experience, as well as the face-shredding guitar solos, gut-wrenching drum riffs and electric bass and keyboards wizardry that punctuate this joyously unabashed celebration of heavy rock music. What about newcomers to the material? Ditto, though they will probably be astounded to find that these iconic instruments of rock showmanship have been put, quite literally, into the hands of children.
School of Rock, the Musical faithfully follows the simple, loopy plot of the film. Down-and-out loser rocker Dewey Finn (Alex Brightman), recently fired from his band, is on the verge of being kicked out of his apartment by his substitute teacher roommate Ned (Spencer Moses) and Ned’s high-strung girlfriend Patty (Mamie Parris) for non-payment of rent, when he intercepts a phone call and job offer meant for Ned from the principal of the prestigious Horace Green School, Rosalie Mullins (Sierra Boggess). Desperate to make some money, Dewey seizes the opportunity to impersonate Ned and shows up at Horace Green to substitute teach a classroom for a few weeks. His initial, cynical disinterest in the pre-adolescent school children does a complete about-face when he discovers that they have musical talents, and in short order he has formed them into a rock band, replete with techies, roadies and groupies, and succeeded in turning an orderly Ivy Prep school classroom into a music rehearsal studio and saturation den of heavy death-metal rock and roll.
Dewey still has dreams of becoming a rock star, and he enters his new band, which the students have named “School Of Rock,” into the lineup of an upcoming local “battle-of-the-bands” concert. Unfortunately for Dewey, the concert coincides with Parent/Teacher night at Horace Green, where his imposture is revealed and everything falls apart; fortunately for the audience at the Winter Garden, however, this is right where they can kiss the last shreds of this absurdly thin plot goodbye, and settle in for some choice and juicy rock music at the concert venue, where Dewey and his kid rockers just go to work and melt the wallpaper right off the walls of the Winter Garden.
This is Lloyd Webber’s best rock score in decades. There isn’t a weak song in the show, and the cast is up to its demanding vocals as well. I should probably mention at this point that although there is also an offstage band, these kids are actually playing those instruments, and they are off the charts amazing. Cast standouts include the five band mainstays: on lead vocals, Tomika (Bobbi Mackenzie), on drums, Freddy (Dante Melucci), on bass, Katie (Evie Dolan), on keyboards, Lawrence (Jared Parker) and slaying everyone within earshot on electric guitar, Zack (Brandon Niederauer). The splendid Isabella Russo shines as Summer, the over-achieving teacher’s pet turned hard-boiled band manager. Sierra Boggess is wise to eschew Joan Cusack’s goofily neurotic interpretation of the Stevie Nicks-fan principal from the movie, but just when you are starting to think that Rosalie grew up watching not Jefferson Airplane but Julie Andrews, Ms. Boggess proves her rock creds by nailing the big ballad of the evening, “Where Has The Rock Gone?” Spencer Moses and Mamie Parris are excellent foils, although her big, blistering anthem “Give Up Your Dreams” has apparently been cut from the show, and you may well wonder why such a fine singer has been given so little to do. You can still catch it on the excellent cast album; she nails it. Finally, in the role of Dewey, which catapulted Jack Black to stardom and fame, Alex Brightman is simply the discovery of the season. Completely in control of the out-of-control character he is channeling, Mr. Brightman is blessed with a superb belt-it-out rock voice, and a level of performance energy and rock ’n’ roll mania to put all doubts, and all memories of Mr. Black, aside. He also seems to have an excellent rapport with his younger cast-mates, with whom he spends much of his considerable onstage time.
Other big plusses: Lights (Natasha Katz) Costumes and Sets (Anna Louizos), and Sound (Mick Potter). The adroit and versatile adult ensemble, coiled about the action throughout the show like stage smoke at a rock concert. Director Laurence Connor’s loving and tight control of the material, which always keeps the story hurtling forward to the next high-amped musical number, and never loses sight of the goal; let’s rock!
Fads in education may come and go, but School Of Rock ought to be in session for a long time to come.
WITH: Alex Brightman as Dewey Finn, Sierra Boggess as Rosalie Mullins, Spencer Moses as Ned, Mamie Parris as Patty, Evie Dolan as Katie, Carly Gendell as Marcy, Ethan Khusidman as Mason, Bobbie MacKenzie as Tomika, Dante Melucci as Freddy, Brandon Niederauer as Zack, Luca Padovan as Billy, Jared Parker as Lawrence and Isabella Russo as Summer.
Choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter; music supervisor, Ethan Popp; sets and costumes by Anna Louizos; lighting by Natasha Katz; sound by Mick Potter; music director/associate director, David Ruttura; hair design by Josh Marquette; production stage manager, Bonnie L. Becker; production manager, Aurora Productions; associate choreographer, Patrick O’Neill; music coordinators, Michael Keller and Michael Aarons; orchestrations by Mr. Lloyd Webber; general manager, Bespoke Theatricals; executive producers, Nina Lannan and Madeleine Lloyd Webber. Presented by Mr. Lloyd Webber, the Really Useful Group, Warner Music Group and Access Industries, the Shubert Organization and the Nederlander Organization, at the Winter Garden Theater, 1634 Broadway. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.