THEATER REVIEW: “School of Rock” @ Playhouse Square by Roy Berko

Through Sun 3/24

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 School of Rock The Musical with lyrics by Glenn Slater and book by Julian Fellowes.

What happens when you take a bunch of adorably geeky fifth graders who are singing, dancing and musical instrument playing phenomes, and add to the mix the rock musical sounds of Andrew Lloyd Webber?  It becomes School of Rock The Musical.

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 capsule judgment of my Broadway review of School of Rock stated that it “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!”

It did have a long Broadway life. It made its Broadway debut and world premiere on December 6, 2015 and ran through January 20, 2019. The tour opened on September 30, 2017 in Rochester, New York, and is now making a three-week stop at Playhouse Square’s Connor Palace Theatre.

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 flick, which was basically a vehicle for comedian Jack Black.

The musical starts with a performance by the No Vacancy band.  Finn, who has an A.D.D. 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, much to the irritation of Patty, Ned’s domineering girlfriend.

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 initial 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, whom everyone thinks is intellectually slow, but once he gets a pair of drum sticks in his hand shows how talented he really is; and Billy, who is flamboyant and 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 nontraditional 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,” (a made-up “disease”), 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 very good score.

The cast is generally excellent. Though he is properly hyper and often compelling, Gary Trainor, who played Dewey on press night (he alternates with Merritt David Janes), lacked the needed spontaneity. His actions seemed preplanned and lacked authenticity. Layne Roate nicely creates an awkward, hen-pecked Ned, yearning to put on skin-tight banger-leather pants and let loose.

Most of the kids are excellent. Camille De La Cruz stopped the show with her wailing rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Special credos to Cameron Trueblood, Mystic Inscho and Julian Brescia. Unfortunately, one of the lead lasses kept breaking character, looking at the audience, upstaging others. Normally this could be overlooked, but this is a professional production and these kids are getting equity pay.

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.  The choreography is creative.  John Rigby, the music supervisor, nicely incorporated the kids’ onstage musical performances with the pit orchestra.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  I didn’t find the touring production to be as dynamic as the Broadway show, but few patrons are going to leave not entertained. Come on — the stage is filled with talented kids, loaded with shticks and gimmicks, a dynamic score enfolded in an easily followed story. What’s not to like?

School Of Rock The Musical runs through Sun 3/24 as part of the Key Bank Broadway Series.  To purchase tickets, call 216-241-6000 or go to playhousesquare.org.

[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association and Cleveland Critics Circle]

 

 

 

 

 

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