BWW Review: Endearing and Fun SCHOOL OF ROCK Surprises at Segerstrom Center
When it comes to seeing a fresh new show with low or even non-existent expectations, nothing is more pleasurable and satisfying than walking out at the end of it with a huge, beaming smile on your face and a somewhat gobsmacked feeling of "my gosh, I can't believe I really liked what I just saw!"
That was the giddy communal feeling that I and an ecstatic audience experienced recently during the highly enjoyable Orange County opening night performance of SCHOOL OF ROCK - The Musical, the charming 2015 Broadway musical now continuing its national tour stop at Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Center for the Arts for two weeks through August 5.
Seriously! Going in, I had no idea I was going to like this show as much as I did and, I have to say, I am still floored as I write this review at how genuinely entertained I was was overall with the show---especially since it's one that had a ton of kids at its core. Well...surprise! It turns out those very kids are the very reason this show is so darn awesome. While, sure, it's certainly not a groundbreaking, game-changing musical by any means, the nonetheless engaging SCHOOL OF ROCK definitely has a significant amount of delightful aspects in it that make it a lively crowdpleaser worth checking out.
Based on Richard Linklater's amusing 2003 film scripted by Mike White and starred Jack Black, this surprisingly fun (and surprisingly funny) stage musical adaptation is probably the last thing I would have ever expected from a collaboration between the infamous, grandiose composer of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, CATS and EVITA and the writer and creator of the British hit period drama Downton Abbey.
And yet here we are. Featuring music from Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics from Glenn Slater, and a winning book adapted by Julian Fellowes, SCHOOL OF ROCK is an imperfect but still highly entertaining show that's simply-constructed yet satisfyingly-executed. It is both shockingly wholesome yet still surprisingly edgy. It is also that rare family-friendly musical that won't bore either the kids that have been forced to come or the adults that are subjugated to accompany them (In fact, I predict lots of new, young musical theater fans will be inspired after seeing the show).
An endearingly funny and enjoyable musical that can be enjoyed by all ages (well, maybe aged 7 and up), SCHOOL OF ROCK keeps the laughs coming at an even steady pace, employing easy-to-digest jokes that range from innocent to ribald---and most of which land to a healthy amount of snickers. While Webber and Slater's songs do their serviceable job to propel the story forward or allow for characters to be closely examined, not many of them are particularly memorable, except perhaps for the inescapable ear-worm "Stick It To The Man" which, by the musical's encore, becomes a rousing, rallying battle cry that the whole audience wholeheartedly chants with great gusto.
But, when all is said/sung and done, the real, unmistakable reason that this show is so much fun is the young ensemble of terrific kids assembled for the show. While some shows employing a bunch of child actors can get a bit grating at times, this show actually offers up a collection of incredibly talented young triple-threats that are impressive as heck. They are so wonderful to watch that the audience can't help but to cheer for them, to root for their success, and to make us all fall in love with them.
Yes, I didn't even mind being manipulated and having my heartstrings pulled during "If Only You Would Listen," as each kid sings their woes over not being understood by their parents. My gosh, if there is ever a musical that can truly showcase young talent and all its possibilities, it would be this one (sorry, MATILDA).
Even better: both the superb child actors and the characters they have been tasked to bring to life are equally captivating. I guess it helps that the guy leading them all like a rock-obsessed Pied Piper is a big kid himself.
The story in SCHOOL OF ROCK, much like the film that inspired it, is easy enough to absorb and follow. In it, we are introduced to unemployed ne'er-do-well Dewey (Rob Colletti), a lazy slob man-child who was once a rock singer and guitarist. After getting kicked out of his band No Vacancy for constantly upstaging its lead singer, Dewey has since retreated to a very slovenly life in a room within the apartment of his longtime childhood friend Ned (Matt Bittner). Meek and nerdy, Ned---a school teacher by trade---is constantly berated by his domineering girlfriend Patty (Emily Borromeo), who is sick and tired of Dewey's disgusting presence in the apartment. She wants Dewey out of the apartment for good, particularly since Dewey hasn't even contributed to the rent.
Meanwhile, Dewey, as one might expect, still dreams of a future life as a rock superstar---even though the universe seems to be working hard against this dream.
But out of nowhere, an unexpected, well-timed opportunity arrives thanks to a fortuitous phone call from Rosalie Mullins (Elysia Jordan on opening night), the principal of the Horace Green School, a prestigious private academy for young boys and girls. Ms. Mullins is actually calling to speak with Ned, who submitted an application to be a substitute teacher at the school. After learning about the open position and the $900-a-week salary that comes with it, Dewey pretends to be his friend Ned and accepts the job.
As one might guess, Dewey---pretending to be his more qualified friend Ned---arrives at the school and is quite profoundly the complete opposite of what one might expect of a teacher at this posh school of high-achieving, highly-disciplined pupils. Rosalie, going solely by Ned's impressive résumé, doesn't immediately dismiss Dewey, even though he comes in very late on his first day.
Soon he is assigned a class of super-smart students who are, understandably, perplexed by their new substitute teacher, who arrives totally unprepared, still nursing a hangover from the night before, and is completely uninterested in teaching them. One of the students in particular, busy-bee know-it-all Summer (the terrific Iara Nemirovsky) is vehemently unimpressed.
But somehow, Dewey manages to keep up the ruse, motivated by his need to earn enough of a paycheck to stave off Patty's threat to kick him out of their apartment if he doesn't come up with his share of the rent.
But then something else triggers Dewey's fancy. Dewey discovers, to his utter delight, that his book-smart students are actually fairly good musicians, too, after discovering their talents while eavesdropping on their nearby classical music class, led by Rosalie. Excited and more interested in his students for a change, Dewey begins inquiring about the students' individual talents.
This prompts an idea: Dewey decides to form a rock band with his students in secret, teaching them the art and history of rock music and honing their natural talents (music-wise or not). His end goal with the new band is for them to enter a local Battle of the Bands competition, which in turn will give him another shot at rocking out in front of an audience and perhaps gain some traction on his dreams.
Though Dewey's intentions are initially self-serving, he ends up accidentally inspiring and exciting the kids in the process, allowing them some freedom to burst out of their confined, sometimes strictly oppressive home lives and discover their burgeoning creative sides they weren't allowed to express before. Suddenly, the audience is overjoyed at the heartwarming sight of these kids feeling "alive" for the first time.
Dewey recognizes and champions the kids' talents and becomes their much-needed cheerleader, even as, yes, lest we forget... he is still inching towards winning the competition so that he can relive the glory, that he is now willing to share.
One by one---unbeknownst to Rosalie, the kids' parents, and the rest of the school---Dewey's classroom becomes Rock Music 101, where he hands out CDs of his rock idols as homework and encourages each student about how great they are. He then assigns each student a role well-suited for each individual's personality and talent.
Some are actual sound-producing members of the band: studious Zack (Vincent Molden) becomes an electric guitar god, smoldering Katie (Bella Fraker on opening night) is the funky bass player, geeky and insecure Lawrence (adorkable Theo Mitchell-Penner) becomes the band's ultra-cool keyboardist, rhythmically-blessed Freddy (Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton) takes on the drums, and two girls, Shonelle (Olivia Buckner) and Marcy (Alyssa Emily Marvin) are recruited as back-up singers.
The rest of the class enthusiastically take on behind-the-scenes roles: fashion-aware Billy (scene-stealing Huxley Westemeier) becomes the band's costume designer and stylist, Mason (Carson Hodges) is put in charge of lights, pint-sized James (Cameron Trueblood) takes on security detail, while Sophie (Gabriella Uhl) and Madison (Natalia Bingham) are the band's "roadies." Appropriately, bossy Summer is tasked to be the band's manager.
Later, the super-shy, barely speaking new girl Tomika (the remarkable Grier Burke) steps up with enough courage to volunteer as another singer, which she more than proves with a killer Act 2 audition that impresses her classmates, Dewey, and us, the audience with well-deserved loud cheers.
With his rock band in place, Dewey looks longingly forward towards the contest while spending his days trying not to get caught by the principal and his fellow teachers, who all suspect something amiss with the new substitute. Much of the fun is not only watching the kids play the music, but to also watch them blossom with endearing excitement as they discover that they're truly great at something besides all that book-learnin' in the classroom---an activity that their demanding parents expect them to adhere to daily.
Much more than the movie, the stage iteration of SCHOOL OF ROCK makes a conscious effort to explore the lives of the kids with much more care and focus, which in turn easily earns our rapt attention and stokes our appreciation for the material. In this sense, the musical becomes so much more enjoyable, compared to what would have happened had they focused on Dewey's non-journey (he stays pretty much the same guy throughout the musical, only perhaps opening up his heart more thanks to the kids he "tutored").
Under the direction of Laurence Connor, the musical moves comfortably from scene to scene with nary a lag in the trajectory (JoAnn M. Hunter's choreography helps with the dynamic dance numbers). Connor should also be commended for eliciting such impressive acting performances from its cast, particularly the younger ones, who all perform as though they've acted and lived this material for decades.
It's no hyperbole to say that the kids are truly the stars of this musical, and every single one is a jaw-dropping talent---quite a laudable feat at their ages. I smiled every time they were on stage. When they all rock out together, it's a marvel of unbridled joy.
Not to say that the adults in the room didn't make their mark either. Colletti does a great job playing the man-child/crazy babysitter that is Dewey, and elicits lots of laughs with his manic, playful line deliveries and his hilarious interactions with the kids (and his singing voice is pretty awesome, too). Jordan also does well as the uppity Ms. Mullins, who amusingly lets loose a contrasting persona in the 2nd act thanks to a bit of liquid courage and Stevie Nicks (my apologies to the people adjacent to me for gasping out loud "Ooh, Destiny's Child" prematurely upon hearing the initial strums of "Edge of Seventeen" forgetting for a split second that Beyoncé and company famously sampled Stevie's original).
Other standouts include Bittner as Dewey's nerdy best pal Ned and Borromeo who essays the "annoying demanding girlfriend" role quite authentically. I also loved Deidre Lang's occasional funny appearances as suspiciously sassy Ms. Sheinkopf and it was great seeing and hearing former KINKY BOOTS Angel Hernando Umana's stratospheric rock star voice again as Theo, No Vacancy's ab-tastic lead singer.
On the technical side, SCHOOL OF ROCK looks great, thanks to the combination of Anna Louizos' set designs and costumes and Natasha Katz's lighting designs that range from scenes in concert stages to school rooms. Meanwhile the rocking sounds from the show's band led by musical director Martyn Axe sound terrific without drowning out the cast's vocals. While this may not be Webber's or Slater's most memorable musical compositions, much of what you hear live on stage sounds as if they truly belong in the show.
Boy, what a contrast from that other Lloyd Webber show that came and went on this very same stage just a few months ago! I hate to admit it, but that show, the wholly unnecessary "sequel" to PHANTOM, sort of soured me initially in seeing SCHOOL OF ROCK, fearful that it would be another misstep. How wonderful to be proven wrong and to walk away from a show with such a bounty of joy---and armed with the knowledge that many of the kids in attendance watching this musical walked away with similar dreams of pursuing or enjoying musical theater.
The bottom line, though, is that the total take-away for SCHOOL OF ROCK is that it... well... rocks. One of the most pleasant surprises this season, the musical has equal amounts of fun and heart. Between its surprisingly humor-filled book by Downton Abbey scribe Julian Fellowes and the winning performances from its pre-pubescent cast, it's a show you don't really want to stay away from while it's here.
Need an escape from the realities of the world for a bit and want a good, hearty, sustained laugh wrapped around a simple plot line and kids to cheer on for loving the arts---something schools are sorely lacking these days? Go see SCHOOL OF ROCK. You'll be pleasantly surprised.
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Photos from the National Tour of SCHOOL OF ROCK by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Performances of the National Tour of SCHOOL OF ROCK at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, August 5, 2018. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.