'School of Rock': Theater Review

School of Rock 1 - H 2015
Courtesy of Matthew Murphy
For those preadolescents about to rock, we salute you.

Cellooo! Andrew Lloyd Webber and Julian Fellowes team up to retool the popular Jack Black movie as a stage musical, enlisting a troupe of gifted preteens.

It's funny, but you don't realize just how badly you needed to see a 12-year-old boy powering through a face-melting guitar solo, or his pint-size female counterpart on bass, pouting like the coolest of rocker chicks, until you witness them onstage in the disarming musical adaptation of School of Rock. Led by the hilarious Alex Brightman in a star-making performance that genuflects to Jack Black in the movie while putting his own anarchic stamp on the role of Dewey Finn, the show knows full well that its prime asset is the cast of ridiculously talented kids, ranging in age from nine to 13. They supply a joyous blast of defiant analog vitality in a manufactured digital world.

In terms of screen-to-stage remakes, this is neither the most imaginative nor the most pedestrian of them, falling somewhere in the respectable midrange. But any nitpicking about the craft of book writer Julian Fellowes (a long way from Downton Abbey), composer-producer Andrew Lloyd Webber (back in the same Broadway theater where his Cats purred for 18 years) and lyricist Glenn Slater has to be allayed by the acknowledgment that they celebrate the strengths of the source material.

Richard Linklater's hit 2003 comedy is probably the most mainstream film of his maverick career. But the director's deft handling gave it a special edge, tempering the inherent cuteness in the story (buttoned-up, unhip prep-schoolers liberate their inner rock gods) with intelligence and genuine emotion. Black's galvanizing antic performance as Dewey, the renegade pied piper of bad-assery, was the ignition key, but it was Mike White's warmly captivating screenplay that tapped into the cathartic power of self-expression with so much heart.

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The creative team on the show, including director Laurence Connor, wisely chooses not to mess with those ingredients, and Fellowes' work on the adaptation is all but invisible, beyond adding some new jokes and contemporary references. That means the musical is funny and endearing for much the same reasons as the movie. Where it distinguishes itself is in providing the sheer unalloyed pleasure of being in the same physical space as the baker's dozen preteen stars while they "Stick It to the Man," to quote one of the show's catchier songs.

It might sound lame to suggest that School of Rock works in large part because of the charms of a bunch of adorable kids. But their infectious delight as they etch their distinct personalities and seize both their individual and collective right to be heard is irresistible. And at a time when attention is being paid to diversity in entertainment, the mix of children from different racial backgrounds adds another refreshing layer to the experience.

With his indefatigable comic energy and explosive physicality, Brightman makes a winning scoutmaster. What's great about his work though is that while it's undeniably a raucous star turn, it's also wonderfully inclusive of each and every performer who surrounds him, particularly the young ones. The actor is bracingly in the moment at all times, engaging with the kids in ways that indicate genuine mutual affection, whether Dewey is brushing them off while nursing a hangover or driving them to unleash the rocker within.

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The show opens with a funny Rock of Ages redux moment, as aging hair-metal band No Vacancy performs "I'm Too Hot For You," their paunches peeking out from fringed leather vests and tight T-shirts. The song establishes instantly that Dewey's spotlight-stealing guitar riffs and athletic performance style put him out of step with the group's deluded sense of their own coolness, so it's no surprise when he's fired. He has managed to freeload for years off his gangly best buddy and former goth-rock bandmate (Maggot Death was their name), Ned Schneebly (Spencer Moses, appealing in the Mike White role). But Ned's shrewish girlfriend Patty (Mamie Paris, way harsh) lays down the law, telling Dewey to start paying rent or move out.

He spies an opportunity to make an easy buck when he picks up a call intended for Ned, with an offer of well-paid substitute-teaching work at an elite prep school. After improbably passing inspection with starchy principal Rosalie Mullins (Sierra Boggess), Dewey then declares permanent recess for his class, ignoring the skeptical grilling of Little Miss Gold-Star Bossy-Boots, Summer (Isabella Russo, priceless in the slightly demonic mold of a baby Christina Ricci). But when he stumbles by a music class and observes the kids' skilled musicianship, he cooks up an instant plan to make them over from classical geeks into rebel rockers and enter them in the Battle of the Bands.

Revisiting his Jesus Christ Superstar rock roots, Lloyd Webber's commercial instincts are considerably sharper here than on his recent shows, even if his songs are ersatz rock at best, and more often efficient than inspired, while Slater's lyrics tend to express feelings rather than advance the action. The chief exhilarating exception is "You're In the Band," during which Dewey assesses the skill sets of his students and adapts them to their new roles. Incorporating riffs from The Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, Lou Reed and Beethoven, the song rocks, standing alongside the movie's borrowed title track as one of the show's high points.

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This is also the first time we get to see the junior dynamos in action, with Zach (Brandon Niederauer) on guitar; Katie (Evie Dolan) on bass; Lawrence (Jared Parker) on keyboard; and Freddy (Dante Melucci) punishing the drum kit. The fact that all four, alongside Brightman on guitar, are actually playing their own instruments elevates the songs in terms of excitement. Ditto the divine backup vocalists (Carly Gendell and Taylor Caldwell, later joined by dynamite soloist Bobbi MacKenzie), with their gorgeous "doo do-doos" and sublime dance moves. The kids get the show's most poignant moments in affecting songs like "If Only You Would Listen," directed at their oblivious parents, and reprised later in the "To Sir With Love" vein, as a tender tribute to what Dewey has done for them.

Some of Lloyd Webber's more traditional numbers feel like filler, such as the school staffroom interlude "Faculty Quadrille." And while "Where Did the Rock Go?" is superbly sung by Boggess to express secret Stevie Nicks fan Rosalie's yearning for the youthful freedoms she renounced, the inescapable fact is that any extended detour away from the kids leaves you impatient to get back to them. Boggess is lovely in the show's closest thing to a female lead, but in terms of numbers, she's best served in Act 1, wrapping her supple pipes around a spirited rendition of Mozart's "Queen of the Night" with the pre-makeover music class.

The direction of Connor (who staged the current Les Miserables revival) is not always the most elegant, and his blocking sometimes seems at a loss about what to do with the kids when they're not being utilized by choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter. But the minute they launch into ecstatic head-banging, pogoing release, all is forgiven. And the adult ensemble is playfully double- or triple-cast as parents, teachers and rockers, yielding some enjoyment in picking out who's who, especially among the No Vacancy members.

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Design elements are first-rate, from Natasha Katz's lighting, which detonates into full-tilt rock-stadium mode at appropriate moments, to Anna Louizos' clever sets, with their amusing details and fluid reconfigurations. Louizos' costumes are also fun, in particular the tricked-out school uniforms the kids wear for the climactic Battle (with Dewey channeling Angus Young from AC/DC in his own schoolboy-wear); and there's a fabulous sight gag involving Lawrence in full glam-rock drag, courtesy of self-appointed stylist Billy (Luca Padovan, a treasure).

Ultimately, what makes this show a crowd-pleaser is the generosity of spirit with which it bestows the reward of cool self-realization on every last outsider and underdog — whether it's the actual children catching an early glimpse of the adults they will become, or the eternal man-child Dewey, proudly resisting that path. One gripe though — give us another chorus or two of "School of Rock" with the curtain call. The fans crave it, and those diminutive Metallica minions onstage have earned an extra encore.

Venue: Winter Garden Theatre, New York
Cast: Alex Brightman, Sierra Boggess, Spencer Moses, Mamie Paris, Taylor Caldwell, Emily Cramer, Evie Dolan, Natalie Charle Ellis, Carly Gendell, Alan H. Green, Michael Hartney, John Hemphill, Merritt David Janes, Ethan Khusidman, Jaygee Macapugay, Bobbi MacKenzie, Dante Melucci, Brandon Niederauer, Cassie Okenka, Luca Padovan, Jared Parker, Isabella Russo, Tally Sessions, Jersey Sullivan, Jonathan Wagner, Corinne Wilson, Jeremy Woodard, Shahadi Wright Joseph
Director: Laurence Connor
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Glenn Slater
Book: Julian Fellowes, based on the Paramount movie written by Mike White
Set & costume designer: Anna Louizos
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Mick Potter
Choreographer: JoAnn M. Hunter
Music director: Darren Ledbetter
Music supervisor: Ethan Popp
Executive producers: Nina Lannan, Madeleine Lloyd Webber
Presented by Andrew Lloyd Webber, The Really Useful Group, Warner Music Group & Access Industries, The Shubert Organization, The Nederlander Organization