Though the stage show does not have the inimitable and irrepressible Jack Black, it does have rising stars Alex Brightman and Sierra Boggess who make the roles of hero Dewey Finn and Principal Rosalie Mullins their own. The book by Julian Fellows (television’s Downton Abbey and the stage version of Mary Poppins) based on the screenplay by Mike White is extremely faithful to the movie while also giving several of the students’ backstories which makes them more three-dimensional. Before the show begins, we are told by a voice-over by Webber himself that all of the students play their own instruments.
As the movie was all about performing music by terrific musicians, it is really no surprise that the show works as well as it does as a stage show. Fired from the band that he started just before “the Battle of the Bands” contest, wannabe rocker/ slob Dewey Finn (Brightman) finds himself months behind on his rent at the room he rents from his best friend Ned Schneebly (Spencer Moses) and his prim and proper girlfriend Patty (Mamie Parris). And then he is fired from his day job at a record store. When he receives a call from Principal Rosalie Mullins (Boggess) of the Horace Green Prep School looking for Ned, a substitute teacher, for an immediate emergency replacement to start the following morning, Dewey impersonates Ned and takes the job.
Bored by the uptight class and unprepared to teach the curriculum, Dewey discovers that his students are a whiz at playing classical music. He decided to turn his uptight class into a sensational rock band and win the Battle of the Bands. Almost being unmasked numerous times as well as becoming romantically involved with Rosalie who has a well-hidden love of popular music, Dewey succeeds in getting his students to the contest as the new group aptly named “School of Rock.”
The new songs which come in two varieties, rock and traditional Broadway, are by Webber and lyricist Glen Slater who has written the words for Alan Menken’s last five scores (the stage shows The Little Mermaid, Sister Act and Leap of Faith, and Disney movies Home on the Range and Tangled.) The best song, destined to become a classic is the anthem “Stick It to the Man” in which Dewey teaches the class the rebellious nature of rock music. The audition sequence, “You’re In the Band,” with quotes from Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Gillan, Roger Glover, etc., in which the students demonstrate what they can do in a rock band is pure dynamite. The opening number for Dewey’s initial rock band No Vacancy, “I’m Too Hot for You” is a witty rock song. Among traditional type songs which fit the bill are “Horace Green Alma Mater,” “Faculty Quadrille,” and “If Only You Would Listen” sung by the students at home with their disapproving parents.
Webber has graciously and wisely kept the best and most iconic songs written for the film version. The song Dewey writes for the class to perform at the audition “In the End of Time” (by Jack Black and Warren Fitzgerald) and the title song, “School of Rock” (also known as “Teacher’s Pet”) by Mike White and Sammy James, Jr., are dazzlingly staged by director Laurence Connor (the current revival of Les Misérables) and choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter. As the student Tomika who is new in class and feels left out, Bobbie MacKenzie gives a remarkable rendition of “Amazing Grace” as her audition song. The amusing “Math Is a Wonderful Thing” (Jack Black and Mike White) still makes an appearance while Dewey is observed by the principal.
Brightman is a bundle of energy and he gives a very endearing performance. While not as crazily eccentric as Jack Black, he is to some extent more convincing. He is also a great rock musician. As Principal Rosalie Mullins, Boggess isn’t given much to do in Act I except act strait-laced and rigid, but like the class she thaws out beautifully in the second half under Dewey’s guidance. She also gets to sing a very respectable version of Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria from The Magic Flute. Moses and Parris as Dewey’s nerdy roommate and his bossy girlfriend are cardboard characters but the actors have fun with their roles, nevertheless. The other adults play the faculty, parents, and members of Dewey’s original band while transitioning beautifully between roles.
The real surprise of the show is the fabulously talented actors between the ages of nine and 15 who play the students, all of whom differentiate their characters so well that although there are 13 members of the class there is no trouble keeping them straight. Among the standouts are Dante Melucci as the angry Freddy who plays a mean drum set, Evie Dolan as Katie who makes the transition from cello to bass guitar with the greatest of ease, Jared Parker as Lawrence who almost rejects transitioning from piano to keyboard because he doesn’t think he is cool enough, and Brandon Niederauer as Zach whose banker father has forbidden him to play the electric guitar that he loves. And we must not forget the suspicious Summer, who when won over becomes the efficient and commanding band manager played by Sofia Roma Rubino, subbing for Isabella Russo at the performance under review. And of course, Bobbie MacKenzie as Tomika of the golden pipes seemingly too big for her child’s body.
Anna Louizos is responsible for both the colorful sets and costumes. Her sets alternate between the realistic, high-class school rooms and the scuzzy other places in Dewey’s life. The costumes are pitch perfect for the faculty, students, parents and Dewey’ friends and music associates. Natasha Katz goes all out in the lighting design for the numbers that take place as part of the rock bands’ on-stage performances. At times Mick Potter’s sound design is too loud and obscures the clever lyrics.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock – The Musical is in the grand tradition of such shows as My Fair Lady, The Music Man and The Sound of Music: an unlikely teacher must change uptight people with his special skills and along the way finds himself. School of Rock also makes spectacular use of its musical idioms as well as the tremendous new talent on stage of the Winter Garden. School of Rock will have your rooting for its hero quite soon and send you out at the end feeling good about the underdog coming out on top. One of the most satisfying shows of the season.
School of Rock (through January 20, 2019)
Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway at 50th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.schoolofrockthemusical.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission