BWW Review: Andrew Lloyd Webber Returns To Rebellious Mode In Kickass Fun SCHOOL OF ROCK
Remember when Andrew Lloyd Webber's music was demonized as despicably subversive irreverence that undermined everything that was good and decent about America? If you were around in the early 1970s you'd surely remember that he and lyricist Tim Rice were considered quite the dangerous radicals when JESUS CHRIST SUSPERSTAR hit these shores.
You can celebrate those good old days now with the English Lord's enthralling, high-energy kickass new hard-rockin' musical at the Winter Garden. Add to the mix Glenn Slater's solid set of lyrics, the funny and sincerely touching book by Julian Fellowes and a top flight cast led by director Laurence Conner, and School of Rock is a big, beautiful blast of musical comedy from start to finish.
Taken from the 2003 feature film's screenplay, the plot is basically THE SOUND OF MUSIC without the Nazis. Instead of Maria, we have Dewey Finn (a star-making turn by Alex Brightman) the immature, spotlight-stealing guitarist for the dive bar band, No Vacancy. Fed up with his antics while the lead singer is trying to soulfully croon their signature tune, "I'm Too Hot For You," Dewey is fired.
Also fed up with Dewey is Patty (Mamie Parris), the girlfriend of his roommate and old band buddy, Ned (Spencer Moses), who is now making ends meet with substitute teaching gigs. In danger of getting kicked out of their apartment unless he starts contributing to rent and expenses, Dewey pretends to be Ned when the prestigious Horace Green Elementary School calls offering a long-term job.
In a somewhat underwritten role (get her a number for the first act) Sierra Boggess is delightful as the well-meaning, but tightly wound and socially awkward principal, Rosalie, whose rare moment of giddy nerdiness comes when improvising Mozart's Queen of the Night aria while conducting band lessons. Shocked to hear some actual musical talent in the tykes, Dewey devises a plot to secretly devote the rest of the semester to rock history, rock appreciation and music lessons, with a mission to defeat No Vacancy in an upcoming battle of the bands.
While the kids are suspicious of Dewey's plot to ditch the prescribed lessons, he's also the first adult to encourage them to express themselves by doing something they love. By the end of the first act the gang is jumping up and down and stomping their feet in an incredibly catchy anthem of tween rebellion, "Stick It To The Man."
Before the curtain goes up, the recorded voice of Andrew Lloyd Webber assures the audience that the young cast members are all playing their own instruments, which later brings extra excitement to the joyously inclusive musical scene, "You're In The Band," where Dewey, who will be singing lead vocals, divvies up assignments for musicians, as well as back-up singers, roadies, technicians and, at the request of the fashion-obsessed Billy (Luca Padovan), a stylist.
The most sensational ensemble of kid actors to hit Broadway since ANNIE's original gang of orphans is headed by scruffily charismatic lead guitarist Brandon Niederauer. Bass guitarist Evie Dolan masters the job's traditional deadpan grimace and Jared Parker doesn't hide his wild enthusiasm whipping out keyboard licks. Dante Melucci gets the audience going with his slamming drumming but the jaw-dropping moment comes when Bobbi Mackenzie, as the shy Tomika, lets out a mature and sensitively textured vocal of "Amazing Grace."
On the acting side, Isabella Russo shows great comic chops and a fine musical theatre voice as Summer, the smart kid with leadership qualities that excels at being the band's manager. (Fellowes may want to rethink a line where the admiring Dewey says Summer is going to be the first woman president of the United States. It comes off as a knock against Hillary Clinton's chances.)
A lesser performer might be overshadowed working with this collection of talent, but Brightman is a powerhouse of bouncing energy, crack comic timing, growling rock vocals and fine, sensitive pathos that really sells it when he inspires Boggess' Rosalie to rediscover the wild rocker she used to be.
The crisp production is enhanced by Anna Louizos fluidly moving set that allows the pace to keep surging forward. If the book has moments that defy logic a bit, and if some of the smaller roles are a bit clichéd, the musical's exuberant score and meaningful theme of finding your soul through the arts glosses over any weak spots. School of Rock is a great night out.