by Ryan Leeds
The kids are most definitely, all right. From this year’s bundle of cuteness in the latest revival of The King and I, to the dancing defiance that continues to play out in Matilda, it is safe to say the the future of Broadway rests in solid hands. The latest tribe of talented youth is currently taking the Winter Garden Theatre by storm in composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Glenn Slater’s musical School of Rock.
Based on the 2003 film of the same name, the tuner tells the completely unrealistic but charming tale about Dewey Finn (Alex Brightman), a washed up bum of a rock singer who shacks up in the home of his best friend/former rocker turned educator, Ned Schneebly (Spencer Moses). Facing pressure from Ned and his girlfriend, Patty De Marco (Mamie Parris), to pay the rent or move out, Dewey craftily concocts a plan when he receives a phone call from the prestigious Horace Green prep school. It turns out they are seeking a substitute teacher. With quick wit and a streak of opportunism, Finn poses as his best friend, accepts the job and arrives, hungover, to instruct the elementary tykes. He soon discovers that a streak of music mania runs through them and, instead of educating them with the intended curriculum, he throws his efforts into preparing them for a Battle of the Bands rock contest. Meanwhile, uptight principal Rosalie Mullins (Sierra Boggess) suspects that her class is not in the best hands. But, as is the case in movies and musical theater, happy endings ensue. When Mullins finally lets down her hair, love blossoms between her and Finn and conquers all.
At first glance, it seemed to me an odd choice for Lloyd Webber to have been at the helm here. For so long, I’ve related him to the schmaltzy (but admittedly enjoyable) music of Evita, Cats, and Phantom of the Opera. It then occurred to me that he composed the more hard-driving Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, both of which offered more edge than the usual Broadway fare. He’s gone back to his roots with this score, even if he has consciously or sub-consciously stolen some riffs from existing artists. The students plea to their parents to be recognized, “If Only You Would Listen” is lifted directly from Lloyd Webber’s former writing partner, Tim Rice, who lyricized Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus’ “Someone Else’s Story” in Chess. Another song of defiance, “Stick It To the Man,” which in typical Lloyd Webber fashion is reprised multiple times, is a dead ringer for Pink’s “So What” (and offers the exact sentiment of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It”). The rest of his score is serviceable, but not terribly memorable.
Even more surprising is the under-utilization of Sierra Boggess, whose glorious soprano captivates audiences every time she opens her mouth. In a recent New York TimesTalk, Lloyd Webber praised her as being one of his favorite performers to interpret the role of Christine in Phantom of the Opera and its sequel. One must then inquire why he didn’t choose to give her more to do here. Aside from a cheeky rendition of Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria and an adequate ballad in Act II (“Where Did the Rock Go”) there’s not a lot for her to do but scowl and glance disapprovingly at her staff.
Brightman is a true fireball. With a strong, powerful rock voice and limber physicality, he is bringing enough energy to power Times Square. Some may argue that he’s simply impersonating Jack Black, but so be it. Black’s enthusiastic energy was contagious in the film, and Brightman is bringing that same level of charm to the stage.
But back to those kids! Sure, we’ve seen children sing. We’ve seen them dance. We’ve seen them act, and we’ve seen them play instruments. But this cast is doing it all with more intensity than you’d expect. A recorded announcement at the top of the show informs us that, yes, they are in fact playing their own instruments. What is so impressive and commendable is the inspiration this will yield for young theatergoers. It also provides a solid case for lawmakers and educational institutions to keep music programs in schools.
School of Rock, directed by Laurence Conner, is not one of the best shows on the boards right now. It is extremely loud and bombastic. But through all of the clutter, a great, big heart exists. Maybe this crotchety theater reviewer prefers more peaceful fare, but younger generations crave—and deserve—role models, which School of Rock will no doubt provide.
School of Rock
Winter Garden Theatre
50th Street and Broadway
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.