BWW Review: SCHOOL OF ROCK at San Jose Center For The Performing Arts
"Where Did the Rock Go?" is one of the lovelier ballads Andrew Lloyd Weber has written - redolent of longing for a younger self unencumbered by the responsibilities and attendant anxieties of adulthood. The title phrase is set to one of Lloyd Weber's patented ear worms that I defy you to get out of your head days after seeing the show, maybe ever. It comes in the middle of Act 2 of "School of Rock," the stage adaptation of the popular 2003 film, playing through Sunday, May 9th at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. Sung by the tight-laced school principal after she's been loosened up by a single beer, the ballad gives the actor playing her (Lexie Dorsett Sharp) the welcome chance to finally relax, let go and show off some serious pipes. It also serves as a sort of de facto early 11 o'clock number since the theme of the song is also the overarching theme of the show. Or is it?
The real theme of the stage adaptation appears to be how delightful it is to watch pre-adolescent children adopt the swagger of aging rockers. On that count, the show delivers in spades. A row of middle-aged theatergoers behind me seemingly couldn't stop themselves from remarking "She is SO cute!" and "He is SO adorable!" again and again throughout the entire 2 and a half hour running time of the show. Lest I sound like a hopeless curmudgeon (Though, please, why do people insist on talking?!), let me state for the record that the 12 young actors playing the students are all indeed quite talented and yes, truly adorable. Whether that is sufficient to engage an audience through a 2-act musical, of course, is another matter entirely.
With a book by Julian Fellowes (yes, the "Downtown Abbey" guy!), lyrics by Glenn Slater and music by Andrew Lloyd Weber, the stage musical adheres closely to the film, making a few nips and tucks in the story and inserting updated cultural references (Taylor Swift, ubiquitous cell phones, gay dads, etc.). The story remains focused on Dewey Finn, obnoxious man child and rock star wannabe who, through a mix up in identity, becomes a substitute teacher at an elite, private grammar school and in short order transforms his formerly dour students into a kickass rock band. In the process, all involved learn some valuable lessons - Dewey about taking responsibility, the kids about just being kids, and the parents about appreciating their children for who they really are. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, the writing here could be much sharper. Most of the best lines of Fellowes' book are lifted directly from the film's screenplay (certainly fair game), but too many encourage one-dimensional performances from the kids and adults alike (Do we really need to see 2 hissy fits from one of the gay dads?). Slater's lyrics are often similarly blunt-forced, eschewing subtlety wherever possible. A case in point is the opening number, a parody of a bad rock song, performed by Dewey's rock band of questionable talent and limitless confidence in their own sexual allure. What a great opportunity for a team of crack writers to have some fun with, no? Unfortunately, the title, "I'm Too Hot for You," says it all, leaving the song itself nowhere to go. Wouldn't it be great if instead we got lyrics with some clever word play that allowed us to gradually discover just how into themselves these guys are? It doesn't help that Lloyd Weber seems to have forgotten how to write an actual melody for much of the score. Perhaps the most insistent showstopper is a song called "Stick it to the Man" introduced late in the first act and twice reprised thereafter. Once again, the title says it all, the actual lyrics don't expand on the central idea, and the melody is basically non-existent. The most tuneful song for the kids is "If Only You Would Listen," a lovely, plaintive plea to their parents to pay more attention to them. Too bad that the melody of the title phrase is identical to "Someone Else's Story" from the 1980's musical "Chess" (Oops!). A further sign of the overall musical impoverishment of the score is that the 2 biggest ovations in the second act are for interpolated numbers - the Christian hymn "Amazing Grace" and Stevie Nicks' "Edge of Seventeen," songs obviously not written by Lloyd Weber and Slater.
Technical credits are all solid. Sets & costumes by Ann Louizos are appropriate and efficient if not exactly inspired, which is admittedly a tall order for a show that is largely set in present-day classrooms and school hallways. Crack lighting designer Natasha Katz does a good job delineating the shifting locales and seems to have fun when she can finally let loose with a mini rock show at the end. Choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter is spirited if perfunctory, with the signature move for many numbers consisting of the kids jumping up and down in place.
Director Laurence Connor appears to have guided the performances to favor the broad stroke over the insightful nuance. Characters are sketched in with a signature tic or body posture, but rarely dig deeper than that. Leading man Merritt David Janes, in the role that made Jack Black a huge film star, gives a credible facsimile of Black's performance, minus Black's trademark sense of desperation and danger around the edges. Ms. Sharp as Principal Rosalie has the somewhat thankless task of playing a total prig and joy-killer for most of the show, seemingly biding her time until her character can let down her guard late in the show. Once she does, Sharp shows off a flexible and powerful voice capable of color and emotion that I would be happy to hear in another show. The hard-working ensemble alternates between bland proficiency (playing the disapproving parents) and occasionally having some fun (playing the stars-in-their-own-minds of Dewey's band).
Finally, though, the success of the show comes down to those darned kids. They are clearly very talented and accomplished for their age, and some will likely go on to have successful performing careers as adults. If watching a nerdy, socially-awkward, 10-year-old suddenly let loose, get down and transform into a heavy metal head banger sounds like your kind of thing, then this is clearly the show for you. If that doesn't quite float your boat, you might want to give this one a miss.
"School of Rock" continues through Sunday, June 9th at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 S. Almaden Blvd, San Jose, CA. Tickets and information are available at www.broadwaysanjose.com or by calling 800-982-ARTS (2787).
Photos by Evan Zimmerman - Murphy Made