Back when I was in high school, we didn’t do musicals where the songs had titles like “Stick It to the Man.” (I don’t think our principal would have allowed it!) But now Cherry Hill High School West is doing just such a show – and that’s a very good thing.
School of Rock is the latest musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the most successful composer in theatre history. But it’s a far cry from the high-minded, serious shows he’s best known for. School of Rock, based on the 2003 movie starring Jack Black, is a raucous comedy filled with stomping, riff-heavy guitar rockers. It’s a return to his roots for Lloyd Webber, whose first big hit was the rocking (and, for its time, hip and daring) Jesus Christ Superstar.
The musical’s book, by Julian Fellowes, sticks closely to the plot of the movie. It’s the story of Dewey Finn, an irresponsible, unemployed slacker who sneaks his way into a teaching job at a private school, where he ends up inspiring his students to form a rock band. The book has a lot of funny lines, though you might recognize a lot of them from Mike White’s movie script. And the plot doesn’t have a lot of surprises, so even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ll probably figure out pretty early on how it’s going to end.
But that’s okay. School of Rock may not be too sophisticated, but it’s also a whole lot of fun. And the students at Cherry Hill West look like they’re having a lot of fun performing in it. (The show is still running on Broadway, so the school has scored quite a coup nabbing one of the first school productions.)
Director Megan Langman’s production provides plenty of opportunities for its talented cast to shine. Ed Nogowski is hilarious as the laid-back Dewey, while Amelia Paulson, as the principal standing in his way, shows off some gorgeous soprano trills on “Here at Horace Green,” her hymn to her school.
There are also strong performances by the young performers playing the students that Dewey turns into a rock band: Charlie Bove shows off exceptional guitar skills, and Michael Sagedy has some nice keyboard solos. And Grayson Leslie shows off good comic timing (and some shrewd eye-rolling) as Freddy, the band’s drummer. (The orchestra, led by Jim Mark, is up to the pounding demands of the score.)
Alexa Gershon, as band manager Summer, deftly handles the fast-paced lyrics of “Time to Play.” Sonia Kangaju, as a shy student Dewey brings out of her shell, has a powerful voice she shows off on a version of the traditional “Amazing Grace.” And she leads the students on a reprise of the ballad “If Only You Would Listen,” a poignant plea for parents to pay attention to their childrens’ needs. (That song features some of lyricist Glenn Slater’s sharpest work.)
The opening weekend performance I attended had some kinks to work out. There were a number of technical problems, most notably with the microphones, many of which either didn’t work or rumbled with feedback. (I’m certain these problems will get resolved by the end of the run on December 10.) Victoria Borelli designed the sets, including an assortment of posters and album covers that wittily sum up Dewey’s obsessions.
Lloyd Webber’s catchy melodies provide a good soundtrack for rebellion – or at least the type of innocent, uplifting rebellion Dewey Finn teaches to his students. And when Dewey and his students join forces for a rowdy concert, you’ll be rocking right along with them.
Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes, including intermission.