Regional Reviews: Chicago
A Jack Black film isn't the first thing that might come to mind as source material for either an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical or an adaptation project for Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, but they both serve the material faithfully, and well. One might forget that, after Lloyd Webber's faux-operatic The Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard, and Aspects of Love, many of his earlier efforts, like Joseph, Starlight Express, and in its own way even Jesus Christ Superstar, were pop-y, unpretentious fun. Here, he's back to that earlier form, with not-so-heavy metal rock songs along with a few softer numbers you might find in other Lloyd Webber musicals. You might also note a similarity to Phantom in its message of the redemptive power of music.
Lloyd Webber, in his roles as both producer and creator of this adaptation, wisely recognized that the point of all this is the comedy. With the film a showcase for the unique persona of Jack Black, it must have been a huge challenge to find an adequate stage surrogate for Black. This national touring company, which opened in Rochester, New York, on September 30, 2017, has such a person in Chicagoan Rob Colletti. Colletti, a product of Chicago's Columbia College and The Second City Training Center who has also covered the role of Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon, lands all the verbal and physical laughs with skill. His Dewey is the perfect man-boy, deeply believing in rock and wanting to be a part of it, but clueless as to how to work with others and get through life as an adult with any sort of responsibility. Still, the character's belief in music and his basic kindness show through so that you root for him even as you laugh at him. Though I don't remember the film well enough to say how closely Colletti may have borrowed from Black's iconic performance, he seems to have made enough of it his own that it comes off as authentic and organic. The show is suitably a vehicle for a star, and this production has a promising one in Colletti.
Colletti also has some winning co-stars in the remarkable young actors who play Dewey's students. Yes, they impress by being able to play their instruments as well as sing, but even more impressive is their skill as comic actors. They're musical, they can move, and they're funny. There's Ava Briglia as the no-it-all Summer who becomes "manager" of the band Dewey forms called School of Rock. She's snotty without being grating and smoothly makes the transition from gold-star-grubbing nemesis to ally. Theo-Mitchell Penner is the pianist turned keyboardist Lawrence, who thinks he's not cool enough for the band, but proves to be a rock virtuoso on the electronic ivories. Equally virtuosic is Zack on guitar, played by a very cool Phoenix Schulman.
Gianna Harris is sweetly heartbreaking as Tomika, the new girl at the exclusive Horace Green School, who is initially too shy to audition for backup singer but ultimately gains confidence and becomes lead singer. No vocal slouches either are Olivia Buckner and Chloe Anne Garcia as the backup singers Shonelle and Marcy. Katie (Theodora Silverman) plays a mean bass and Freddy (Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton) is a big-league drummer. In charge of the fabulous costumes is the equally fab Billy (John Michael Pitera, who shows stylish gusto in the role). Supporting the rock musicians are lighting designer Mason (Carson Hodges), security man James (Tommy Ragen), and roadie Sophie (Gabriella Uhl).
There's also nice work from Lexie Dorsett Sharp as the school principal, Rosalie Mullins; Matt Bittner as the nerdy Ned Schneebly, whose identity Dewey steals to snag the teaching job; and Emily Borromeo as Ned's demanding and inflexible wife Patty.
Anna Louizos' scenic design uses modular walls that transform the school settings from classroom to hallway and teachers' lounge with near-cinematic seamlessness. Louizos designed the costumes as well, nicely creating the look of heavy metal rockers along with school uniforms, yuppie styles for the parents and Ned and Patty, and grunge wear for Dewey.
White's screenplay and Fellowes' adaptation borrow from earlier sources, to be sure, ranging from the aforementioned classroom dramas to, as others have noted, The Music Man. But the formula works on the strength of its satire, highlighting the wisdom of children over that of adults lost in a quest for achievement and status that they seek to pass on to their kids. School of Rock reminds us that sometimes childrenand even man-children like Deweyare more in touch with what makes us human. The script and the funny but honest performances in School of Rock let the comedy and the heart land.
School of Rock - The Musical will play the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, through November 19, 2017. For tickets and information, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com or call 800-775-2000. For more information on the tour, visit https://schoolofrockthemusical.com.