Full disclosure: I am not a rock ‘n roller, and think its music has little to offer what we’ve come to know as “musical theater.” Before you start cursing me out as an old codger let me tell you that I found this Andrew Lloyd Webber-Glenn Slater-Julian Fellowes adaptation of the popular Jack Black movie enormously appealing. Set in a high class prep school with rich kid students and uptight teachers, it is home to a cast of some thirty actors playing pre-adolescent youngsters as well as a large handful of lively adults, most of whom are their arch enemies. Parents, teachers, all square and distant and yesterday’s news, none of whom seem to be in touch with the young minds and hearts of their pupils and children.
Into this tender trap called the Horace Green Preparatory School comes Dewey Finn, a wannabe failed rock star who is chronically unemployed and broke. He pretends to be his friend Ned, who was once a cutup like Dewey, but is now a properly square citizen with very conventional plans for a future life with his soon to be bride. Borrowing his friend’s respectable name, he is offered a temp job as a substitute teacher at Horace Green. He cons his way into the job, bamboozling the lady principal of the school into thinking he’s some sort of oddball genius. Once inside the classroom, he is a force that discovers musical talent in his students, and in no time at all, he’s given them new life by creating a band that includes all of them as instrumentalists, singers, composers, security guards and managers. There is a guitarist, a bass player who is shorter than her instrument, a whiz at the keyboard, a percussionist who really rocks. He finds a soloist singer who evolves from the shyest girl in the class, and two or three backup singers who are very happy to lend her support.
The driving force of this whirlwind of a musical is Dewey Finn, and though he made a star of his creator Jack Black, who played him in the film, he’s doing it again with Alex Brightman who is playing him this time out. Brightman is inexhaustible; loose limbed, overweight and graceful, his Dewey always seems to have just been shot out of a cannon, and his exuberance is contagious – not only to his students but to us out front as well.
Lloyd-Webber, who is lead producer as well as composer, has stated that he was thrilled to return to the roots of his career, when his early offerings Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. first brought rock to the West End and Broadway stages. He has written 14 new songs and he’s done his own orchestrations. The songs are rousing and fun, and the young cast attacks them with relish, and delivers them to us with amazing talent and enthusiasm. I managed to catch Glenn Slater’s clever lyrics in several of them, but I’ll get the rest from the Cast recording for many went up in the shriek that is the rock sound design. Julian Fellowes, fresh from his triumph as sole writer of the hit series Downtown Abbey,” here proves he has a way with lighthearted banter and totally contemporary characters, none of whom would be allowed past the chief butler Mr. Carson at the Abbey.
As the program lists the characters only with first names, I’m hard-pressed to single out the performers by name, but the small fellow who handled the guitar, the young lady who mastered the bass, the keyboard fellow whose fingers went wild, the percussionist who was absolutely solid on a full set of drums, and the singing soloist (the shy girl who had to be thawed) who played the one character whose name I recall — Tomika — all of these and more were discoveries who gave the evening a real rush. Among the adults, in addition to the towering Alex Brightman, the leading lady – Sierra Boggess – managed to play half the evening as the uptight principal and the rest of it, after falling for Dewey, as the hip swinger that was hiding inside her all the time. Spencer Moses as Dewey’s friend Ned, also showed comic talent as he morphed from one sort of man into another. Come to think of it, everyone changed — all because of their exposure to the sounds of the rock band composed of kids from the Horace Green Preparatory School.
It’s The Music Man all brought into the 21st Century, but proof positive that there are only so many stories to go around. Both shows involve a complete con man entering a community, worming his way into a position of authority, teaching a bunch of unhappy kids how to “think” music, falling in love with the town librarian (in this case, the principal), fighting the uptight crowd (in both shows it’s primarily the parents) and hurting a youngster (the librarian’s brother vs. the shy singer) only to make all things work out in the end. Professor Harold Hill and Professor Drew Finn, neither of them really Professors, have a lot in common, and I think this music man will be lighting up Broadway as long as did the other one.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, plus one intermission.
School of Rock-The Musical is playing at The Winter Garden Theatre – 1634 Broadway (at 50th Street) in New York City. For tickets, go to the box office, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, or purchase them online.