Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, celebrated composer of theatrical classics such as Evita, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Jesus Christ Superstar and countless other productions, has written a rock musical. An unlikely thought, but true nonetheless. Even more unlikely, he has written a good rock musical. School of Rock: the Musical is his latest project, and, as the name suggests, it’s based on the beloved 2003 comedy of the same name, starring Jack Black in his prime, Joan Cusack, Sarah Silverman and a young Miranda Cosgrove.
Alex Brightman stars as Dewey Finn, a lazy, perpetually hungover, wannabe rock star who takes up a (fraudulent) career in substitute teaching after getting kicked out of his band. Desperate for cash, he forms a new band, starring his super-talented students from a respected prep school. His goal is to get them to play in the Battle of the Bands and win for a $10,000 cash award. He must, however, bypass the authority of the school’s uptight principal, Rosalie Mullins, played by Sierra Boggess, in order to accomplish this. The result is an upbeat, acceptably corny tale of a wishy-washy hero and his young friends learning the importance of cutting loose and having fun.
Besides Webber, the production team consists of director Laurence Connor, lyricist Glenn Slater, librettist Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame), production designer Anna Louizo and choreographer Joann M. Hunter.
The musical stays fairly true to its film counterpart in terms of the story. It retains its witty charm and memorable punch lines, but makes references to Taylor Swift and smartphones to keep it fresh. The child actors who play Dewey Finn’s students steal the show add their own interpretation to the roles. There is something extremely charming about watching a large group of eight-year-olds (who actually play the instruments) shred classic rock songs like “Smoke on the Water” and “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones, as well as original pieces from the musical. The young musicians consist of Brandon Niederaurer as Zack, the curly-haired guitarist resembling a young Hendrix, Dante Melucci as Freddy, the punk-rock drummer, Jared Parker as Lawrence, the awkward keyboardist and my personal favorite, Evie Dolan as Katie, the adorable pigtail-donning bassist. All of the children are distinct individuals without excessive shtick.
Furthermore, the creative team gives more depth to the kids with a song about their home lives and aloof parents something that was not present in the film, making their collective performance not only fun, but touching as well.
The way Brightman interacts with these talented youngsters is remarkable. He does not overpower them, but instead brings out their individual talents while encouraging them to “stick it to the man.” His energy is infectious, which in turn forces the rest of the cast to keep up. There is never a dull moment with him on stage. Considering the fact that Brightman is on stage for most of the show, the production in its entirety has astoundingly high energy.
School of Rock is a unique addition to Webber’s library of musicals. It is not a tragic love story like Phantom, a biography like Evita or Sunset Boulevard or just plain confusing like Cats. It is pure fun: a show that wants its audience to simply enjoy themselves and let their inner child come alive. It is a breath of fresh air in an era of dramatic musical theatre. I say rock on, kids.