Sunday, May 15, 2016

Broadway’s SCHOOL OF ROCK is a fun-filled rocking show with a moral!

What happens when a musical film earns over $131-million on a $35-million dollar investment?  If you are Andrew Lloyd Webber, you buy the rights and turn it into the Broadway musical SCHOOL OF ROCK with lyrics by Glenn Slater and book by Julian Fellowes.  Yes, the same Julian Fellows, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, to be exact, who wrote, created and produced the television mega-hit “Downton Abbey.”

What happens when you take a dynamic, totally uninhibited actor who uses the stage as his playroom, add a bunch of adorably geeky fifth-graders who are singing, dancing and musical instrument playing phenoms, and add to the mix the rock musical sounds of Andrew Lloyd Webber?  The combination becomes SCHOOL OF ROCK.

In contrast to his usual scheme of things, Britain’s Webber opened the show in New York rather than in London.  Why?  Child labor laws are more relaxed in the United States than in England.  In addition, the subject matter better fit Broadway than London’s West End.  But, most importantly, the American schools “produce the sort of kids required to actually perform the show.” 

The task of finding the 13 kids and their understudies and standbys was daunting.  The search for the nine-to-fifteen year olds, started in January, 2015, eleven months before the show opened on Broadway.  Recruitment took place at the various School of Rock after-school educational programs which sprung up after the film’s success.  Open calls were also held in New York, as well as Chicago and Los Angeles.  The result is a dynamic and talented stage full of awesome child performers.

So, what’s it all about?  As was the film, the plot centers on rock singer/guitarist Dewey Finn. There is, however, a lot more emphasis on the kids and their parents, than in the film, which was basically a vehicle for comedian Jack Black.

The musical starts with a performance by the No Vacancy band.  Finn, who has an ADD-type personality, has difficulty pulling back his exuberance and keeps upstaging the lead performer.  Enough is enough, and he is kicked out of the group.

With no income, he moves in with and mooches off Ned, his long-time easily manipulated college band buddy, and part-time teacher, much to the irritation of Patty, Ned’s domineering girl friend. 

When a call comes for Ned to substitute at Horace Green, a prestigious prep school, Dewey sees a chance for some much needed money by posing as Ned. Despite the doubts of Rosalie, the uptight principal, he gets the gig.

The kids are wary of him, especially the uber-organized, brainiac Summer.  He also has to confront the problems of Tomika, the extremely shy daughter of gay men, who turns out to be a superstar singer; Zack, the son of an uptight businessman who doesn’t realize his son is a musical prodigy; Lawrence, who has no confidence, but is a keyboard wizard; Freddy, who everyone thinks is intellectually slow, but once he gets a pair of drum sticks in his hand, he shows how talented he really is; Billy, who is flamboyant, has an interest in fashion design, but is not appreciated by his macho father.  Each of the other kids has untapped talent which the creative Dewey brings out through non-traditional means.

Dewey decides to enter them in the Battle of the Bands.  They get to the tryouts after sneaking out of school, but they are too late to play.  Summer tells the casting director that all the children have “stickittothemanis,” pleads for some mercy, and the heartbroken manager lets the kids perform.  Of course, they get into the competition.

What follows is a series of manipulations, implausible coincidences, and some out and out stretching of dramatic license.  The result?  Farce and hysteria run wild and the audience has one heck of a good time.

Do they win the Battle of the Bands?  That’s not important.  What is significant, is that Dewey and the kids find love and self-respect.

The musical score, though it includes iconic songs from the film, adds many well-crafted additional theatrical melodies.  Among the show stoppers are, “You’re in the Band,” “Stick it to the Man,” “In the End of Time,” “Math is a Wonderful Time,” and “School of Rock.”  Throw in “If Only You Would Listen” and “Time to Play,” and you have the makings of a great score.

The cast is excellent.  Among the adults, Alex Brightman lights up the stage each time he opens his mouth or jumps, slides or leaps.  His uninhibited, tender-at-times performance, is wonderful.  Sierra Boggess is properly uptight as Principal Mullins.  Spencer Moses nicely creates an awkward, hen-pecked Ned, yearning to put on skin-tight banger-leather pants and let loose.  

Cleveland area alert:  Baldwin Wallace University grad, Cassie Okenka is in the adult ensemble and understudies the role of Patty, Ned’s bad-tempered girl friend.

All of the kids are excellent, with special bows to Isabella Russo (Summer), Raghav Mehrotra (Freddy), a stand-in at the performance I saw, and Luca Padovan (Billy).  Bobbi Mackenzie’s belting rendition of “Amazing Grace” stopped the show.

Director Laurence Connor has molded together a cast of kids and adults, created the right attitude for the farcical staging, and hit the right emotional notes. 

JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography is creative.  Ethan Popp’s music supervision, incorporating the kids on-stage musical performances with the pit orchestra, was well done.

Capsule judgment:  SCHOOL OF ROCK is a fun-filled show with a nice moral base.  The music rocks.  The cast entertains.  It’s the kind of show that audiences love, will do well as it tours the country, and should have a long Broadway life!
Where:  Winter Garden, 1634 Broadway
When:  Open run