Alex Brightman and the company of School of Rock – The Musical
Andrew Lloyd-Webber rocks the theater once again with School of Rock – The Musical, which opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre last night. This new show, based on the popular 2003 Richard Linklater film of the same name, finds the man who brought audiences the grandiose and record-breaking The Phantom of the Opera, the chamber musical Aspects of Love, and the Gothic infused Woman in White returning to the sounds that catapulted him into the spotlight over 40 years ago with seminal rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. Electric guitars wail and the bass pounds in this new show, and it’s hard not to feel that the composer is having a blast (quite literally) as he once again stretches his rock ‘n’ roll musical muscle.
The score for this show about Dewey Finn (a breakout star-making performance from Alex Brightman), a wannabe rocker who inveigles his way into a prep school as a teacher, provides just one of the show’s undeniable joys. The other comes from watching a group of kids, all but one under 13, unleashing their considerable talents as they rip into the music after Dewey has turned their characters from straight-laced and academically driven youngsters into full-fledged rockers with a dream of winning it all in a “battle of the bands” competition.
The formula behind the show and the movie that inspired it couldn’t be more familiar. It’s standard issue: a down-on-his-luck luck hero finds himself in a foreign milieu working with others whom he doesn’t really like and who don’t really like him. Yet, somehow as the show, which has a gracefully constructed book by Julian Fellowes, never feels completely old had and always manages to charm.
Smiles start as soon as the show begins, and Dewey’s revealed playing with a group that he helped form. All of the band members are past their prime, which makes Glenn Slater’s amusing lyric for the number they're performing “I’m Too Hot for You” even funnier. The scene becomes hysterical once Dewey bursts into a self-indulgent guitar solo, completely unaware of his surroundings.
After this, though, Dewey’s out of the band, and facing eviction from the place that he shares with Ned (Spencer Moses), an old school pal, and Patty (Mamie Parris), Ned’s career-driven and none-too-sympathetic fiancé. She wants rent out of Dewey, and that’s when he gets himself the job (one that was meant for Ned) as a substitute teacher at the school.
He doesn’t take to the kids, and they don’t take to him, particularly one girl Summer (made deliciously humorless by Isabella Russo), who sees his decree that they have a day’s recess as completely destroying her future. After Dewey has heard the class rehearse as a band, led by the schools’ oh-so-prim principal, Rosalie (Sierra Boggess), things change. He throws out their classical repertoire (Boggess trilling Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” while the kids play thrills), and starts them on their route to becoming the pint-sized equivalent of Led Zeppelin.
With the introduction of Dewey’s new all-music curriculum to the classroom, the kids discover their own voices, ones which are not heard by their parents (Fellowes book wisely gives theatergoers a glimpse into the kids lonely home lives), and as the students become more self-assured and confident with the new musical language they learn, the show builds toward the joyous and anti-establishment “Stick It to the Man.”
Dewey’s plans for his new group, named “School of Rock,” naturally hits some snags. There’s the thorny issue of permission slips that arises when he wants to take the students to audition for the competition, and he also needs to make sure that no one discovers that he’s not really a teacher. Romance with Rosalie also plays into the mix.
These aspects of the show don’t always delight as much as the parts that focus on the kids, but they need to be part of the mix. Thankfully, Fellowes’ book and Lawrence Connor’s efficient production make sure that the young performers—with Dewey at their side—are never far from the spotlight.
That’s a good thing because whether it’s Brandon Niederauer’s Zack riffing with astonishing intensity on the electric guitar, Dante Melucci’s Freddy providing a thundering drum solo, Jared Parker’s Lawrence jamming out some nifty improvisations on keyboard, or Evie Dolan’s Katie providing thundering beats on bass, the youthful ensemble always enchants. This extends to Bobbi Mackenzie, who gets to offer up a terrific surprise in her turn as the so-shy-she-doesn’t-speak Tamika; and Luca Padovan, who garners laughs with a perfect sense of comic timing.
As for Brightman, he makes Dewey a prickly and acerbic almost-loser who’s nearly impossible to not love. Brightman’s gift for humorously letting loose with wild abandon extends from the character's first zany guitar riff. He delights as he improvises both a Thanksgiving lesson when the principal shows up unexpectedly in his classroom and a goofy sung-through math lesson when Rosalie decides to observe his nontraditional teaching techniques.
More important, Brightman understands how to carefully calibrate Dewey’s rougher qualities. Calling a group of kids “douchebags” and not making theatergoers wince is a feat unto itself.
Anna Louizos’ marvelous scenic design straddles the rarified world of the school and high-tech world of pop music, and her costume designs burst with wit. Her ensembles for the kids’ folks tell audiences everything they need to know about these adults and the transformation that the school uniforms undergo is side-splitting. Lighting designer Natasha Katz’s work also sparks with a duality perfect for the show.
Lloyd-Webber’s score also shifts between the pulsing rock so near and dear to Dewey’s heart (and later the kids’). He provides a couple of classically-based numbers that set the tone of the school, and even shifts over to a lighter pop sound for “If Only You Would Listen,” a beautifully plaintive number that the kids deliver about their problems at home. But as good as this latter number might be, it’s the rock tunes that linger well after the curtain has fallen on immensely enjoyable new show.
---- Andy Propst
School of Rock -- The Musical plays at the Winter Garden Theatre (1634 Broadway). For more information and tickets, visit: schoolofrockthemusical.com.
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