Review: ‘School of Rock: The Musical’ at National Theatre

Kicked out of the band and facing eviction from “his” apartment, Dewey Finn questionably intercepts a substitute teacher assignment at a prestigious local academy to pay the rent. With no teaching experience and very little maturity, Dewey falls back on what he knows best: Rock and roll. His unorthodox teaching methods, however, unwittingly impart something just as valuable as math or history: connection, confidence and communicating through passion.

The national tour cast of 'School of Rock.' Photo by Evan Zimmerman.
The national tour cast of ‘School of Rock.’ Photo by Evan Zimmerman.

Currently playing at the National Theatre with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater, and book by Julian Fellowes, School of Rock: The Musical delivers an entertaining lesson in the power of music. School is in session.

Leading the charge (quite literally) throughout much of the production was rough-around-the-edges Dewey Fin played by Merritt David Janes. From the very beginning with “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock,” Janes flashed his rock credentials with some seriously impressive vocals, grit, and screams. From then on, his irresponsible dedication to this musical genre was a key thread to Janes’ portrayal of Dewey. Pair that with his amusing range of facial expressions and generally weird demeanor as he bumbled across the stage, Janes’ was a charmingly goofy performance. While he never rested on a Jack Black impersonation, (Jack Black played the role in the film version of School of Rock) there were several well-placed nods that would have any fan of the movie chuckling to themselves.

Playing opposite Dewey was Ms. Rosalie Mullins, principal of Horace Green Prep School, played by Lexie Dorsett Sharp. Easily my favorite character in the show, she was more nuanced than I originally gave her strict, straight-laced facade credit for, which quite literally was the point. Her ballad “Where Did the Rock Go” sent chills up my spine as she held the entire audience, and Dewey, in her thralls. Framed with impressive control and smooth power, Dorsett Sharp sunk that musical hook in a way that lingered long after the show ended.

Filling the stage with youthful joy and boundless energy were the kids of Horace Green Prep. Each giving their all, this group of talented young musicians rocked the ensemble numbers “School of Rock” and “Stick It to the Man.”

Lawrence, the keyboardist played by Theo Mitchell-Penner, had a spectacularly hypnotic way of playing the keys and an endearingly bashful but persistent growth arc throughout the show (from blazers to feathers). The band’s bedrock bassist Katie, played by Leanne Parks, had a rock jam face locked in as she drove the baseline home. Her duet with Zach, played by Mystic Inscho on lead guitar, was a shred fest that managed to be both playful and intense. I also really enjoyed the character of Summer, played by Sami Bray. Portrayed initially as the class know-it-all in Act One, by the second act, Dewey Finn had found a way for her leadership skills to become a real asset to the band.

Staging, costumes, and set were of the great quality that you come to expect of a national touring production at the National Theatre. But it was the lighting design by Natasha Katz that was really spectacular. Katz did an excellent job of creating a rock concert atmosphere for both the kids as they were learning to jam and the audience as we attended the Battle of the Bands, cheering just as loud and proud as the parents watching what their kids could do for the first time.  

A fun, lighthearted musical that stayed true to its early 2000s movie origins, School of Rock: The Musical is an entertaining escape to simpler times. While I do think that the show as a whole missed a few key opportunities to bring this story into the modern day – several jokes and character types have not aged well – at its heart, School of Rock teaches the power of finding and sharing your voice. And I think that’s something deserving of a standing ovation.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission.

School of Rock: The Musical plays through January 27, 2019, at the National Theatre – 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 514-3849, or purchase them online.