BWW Review: SCHOOL OF ROCK THE MUSICAL at National Theatre
Every kid with a performer's heart deserves to experience three things in their childhood: access to an incredible arts program, a passionate mentor, and a really great Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
I know because in my case, that was the Springfield (Missouri) Little Theatre, Beth D., and The Phantom of the Opera. And that's a gift I would wish on anyone with similar passions. As for Webber for this generation, there is School of Rock The Musical about an unlikely teacher awakening musical passion in a new generation. The tour is visiting the National Theatre in Washington, DC this month and packs the biggest dreams and highest professionalism into the tiniest bodies.
I always had the feeling when I was at hours and hours of musical rehearsals as a kid that I was practicing for the future. Adult years. Christine Daaé was a grown up and I would have to wait for my moment in the limelight. That didn't actually happen either, but it might have sparked something different in me if I had thought I could apply that passion right then and there. Dewey teaches his ill-gotten young pupils, and the audience along the way, that music is for anyone anytime it strikes them. Greatness can be achieved at any age.
There weren't many grade-schoolers in the audience the night I saw the performance, but there should have been. Theater in Washington can be edgy and difficult for parents to navigate and School of Rock is a slam dunk. Even kids who don't show interest in the dramatic arts may experience magic in seeing their peers pull off something cool.
School of Rock The Musical ambitiously levies 80% or more of the show on performers whose ages barely breach double digits. They sing, act, rock out, and even serve as their own crew at times. My mom was hard pressed to get me to push my chair in after dinner at their age, but these kids are making set changes mid-scene. It is one of my favorite set designs of recent years, by the way, created by Tony nominee Anna Louizos. Everything is mobile and keeps the energy up by never necessitating a blackout.
Merritt David Janes and Lexie Dorsett Sharp are the unrefuted stars of the show and I'll give them their due momentarily, but the young cast deserves the first ovation. Grier Burke as Tomika is mind-blowing. Her character has the most emotional and triumphant arc, and there's a big payoff when she finally reveals her huge talent. With credits that include Young Nala in Disney's The Lion King, she obviously has a killer career ahead if she so chooses.
Sami Bray as Summer is one of the most versatile performers I've ever watched of any age. She packs a precocious punch, nails the comedic timing, and dominates her big number "Time to Play." Miranda Cosgroves' legacy from the film was probably the biggest to overcome, but Bray blows it away.
A recording of Webber assures the audience before the show that the young cast is really playing the instruments, but it's still difficult to believe as it's happening. Theo Mitchell-Penner as Lawrence is a standout and steals every scene he is in. I sometimes burst into spontaneous laughter when I am reminded of how he stoically pounds the keyboard. Leanne Parks as Katie rocks the hardest. She has perfected the pout and can put a bass in its place. Cameron Trueblood as Freddy has the swagger of a rockstar three times his age. On guitar, Mystic Inscho as Zack has the moves to match his grooves. That's probably a terribly uncool old lady way to put it, but he seriously shreds.
If you don't have the chops to hold focus while a dozen talented kids are bopping their adorable hearts out around you, don't bother. Luckily, Merritt David Janes (Dewey) and Lexie Dorsett Sharp (Rosalie) have a few tricks up their sleeve. Janes channels just enough Jack Black to feed our nostalgia but makes the character all his own. He has boundless energy and dials up that uninhibited dreamer vibe that makes his slacker character totally endearing. He's cool and fun and even when he's insulting the kids, his words land softly. Otherwise, things would get awkward quickly.
Sharp has an unrivaled vocal range. Her impeccable tonal quality is definitely not what I expected from the role and it was a very welcome surprise. What's the big thing now? Whistle tone? Yeah, she has that. She also has the acting chops to match as her character melts from a rigid school marm delivering some unforgettable laughs to a romantic artist.
If you're a groupie of the movie, you will likely be delighted. No one does rock operas better than Webber and the plot is a perfect playground for his style. With lyrics by Glenn Slater, the new narrative songs definitely have a musical theater note that the movie doesn't, but they blend well with songs like "School of Rock" and "Stick It to the Man" that carry over from the film.
There are definitely some serious moral issues that are breezed over in the plot like teacher fraud and a narrow education but get over it. It's rock and roll, baby. I used to blast Alice Cooper's 'School's Out' on my Walkman on the last day of the school every year and even if I never skipped a single class, the fantasy of blowing off institutions is a universal stress reliever. And in a world where the arts in education is constantly fighting to escape being squashed by The Man, it's fun to see it squeeze out other fields for once.
Featured Image: School of Rock Tour. Photo by Evan Zimmerman-MurphyMade