BWW Review: The Young Actors Carry SCHOOL OF ROCK: THE MUSICAL to its Heights
Of course, in doing a review of School of Rock: The Musical, I have to make comparisons to the movie from which it was adapted. That endearing smash hit, where Jack Black overturns the old Hollywood adage, "Never work with animals or children," though fifteen-years-old now, still holds up. So, does the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Julian Fellowes musical stage version? For the most part, the answer is yes, though the kids overwhelm the stage adaptation of Dewey Finn, the Jack Black character. Webber says the message of the story is about "the empowering force of music," but what the musical misses from the movie is how Dewey and his students discover the real power of education: the bond that forms between teacher and students as they discover the joy of learning.
The show is a real crowd-pleaser for many reasons. First and foremost are the young actors. Seeing these ten and eleven-year-olds play their instruments with such skill spread goose bumps through the audience (and I'm not referring to another Jack Black movie). I'm sure the hundreds of community theatre productions that will follow will have to allow their casts to "pluck-sync" their guitars, but these children were really jamming and it was wonderful. Their singing was also credible, and Lloyd Webber adds a song, "If Only You Would Listen," in the middle of Act One that allows us to see the children with their parents, who are less "helicopter" and more "guided missile" parents, pushing their kids in directions the adults think they should go.
The Dewey Finn character is still central. This rock star "wanted-to-be" still shuffles through the real world as if it were just some imposed maze to keep him from attaining audience adulation, living with former band mate/now substitute teacher Ned and his wife Patty, just trying to find the ends, let alone make them meet. But this stage Dewey lacks the depth of heart of the movie Dewey. Merrit David Janes, who plays him in this production, does a great job, as if Paul Giamatti is channeling Jack Black, but this adaptation focuses more on the Trickster and less on the Teacher. This Dewey seems so obsessed with getting to the "Battle of the Bands" that this is his whole focus. Yes, the movie Dewey had this as a goal, too, but, in the end, he seemed to want it more for his students than for himself. When that Dewey gets on the purloined bus to go with his kids to the competition, he apologizes for his deceits: "It's not cool to lie to your band." I thought there might be this kind of redeeming moment in the musical. I thought it might come in the stage version of "Parents' Night," and Dewey has his chance, but the writing doesn't rise to the challenge. Here Dewey confronts the parents and defends the students, but instead of a real defense that might show how one can learn math, history, and science through music, this Dewey says, "Your daughter, she's so cool" and "your son, he's a sex god!" Strange praise for the parents, especially with a hint of pedophilia in the air.
We go to the theatre to escape the mundane world, to laugh or feel sadness for others, and, especially to be entertained, and this show does these things. My criticism here is for the writing. Sometimes it goes over the top, making Patty (Sarah Silverman in the movie) more of a caricature than a character. Sometimes it misses the middle, as the principal (Joah Cusak in the movie) somehow falls in love with the slouchy anarchist. Played almost to perfection by Lexie Dorsett Sharp, Rosalie is lured to a bar by Dewey where she sings one of the great new songs for the show, "Where Did Rock Go?" But the skimpy motivation for this is glossed over as if it were pent-up desperation.
Finally, though, the pure, innocent joy of the children and their performances are what make the show worth every penny. As a boy sitting behind me gushed to his mom at intermission, "This is the best thing! It's almost like I was watching TV!" Or a movie...