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Broadway Reviews

School of Rock

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 6, 2015

School of Rock Based on the Paramount movie written by Mike White. Book by Julian Fellowes. Lyrics by Glenn Slater. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Laurence Connor. Choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter. Music Supervisor Ethan Popp. Scenic and costume design by Anna Louizos. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Mick Potter. Hair Design Josh Marquette. Cast: Alex Brightman, Spencer Moses, Mamie Parris, Taylor Caldwell, Emily Cramer, Ava della Pietra, Evie Dolan, Natalie Charle Ellis, Carly Gendell, Alan H. Green, Michael Hartney, John Hemphill, Merritt David Janes, Ethan Khusidman, Jeffrey Samuel Kishinevskiy, Lulu Lloyd, Jaygee Macapugay, Bobbi MacKenzie, Dante Melucci, Brandon Niederauer, Cassie Okenka, Patrick O'Neill, Luca Padovan, Jared Parker, Sofia Roma Rubino, Isabella Russo, Tally Sessions, Jersey Sullivan, Jesse Swimm, Jonatahn Wagner, Hayden Wall, Corinne Wilson, Jeremy Woodard, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Sierra Boggess.
Theatre: Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway between West 50th and 51st Streets
Tickets: Telecharge

Alex Brightman and the children.
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Any theatregoer who's seen a play with child actors has seen bad child actors. But you're going to have to rethink all your prejudices about what they can do thanks to Julian Fellowes, Glenn Slater, and Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical School of Rock, which just opened at the Winter Garden.

You may think (and not without reason) that any adaptation of the 2003 film of the same title about a substitute teacher who transforms his students at the upper-crust Horace Green elementary school into a paint-peeling rock group aiming to compete in an all-adult Battle of the Bands, robbed of the possibility of endless retakes, would be courting disaster to begin with, forcing expectations way too high for even the most gifted of young triple threats to meet.

But with respect to the kids here, those expectations aren't just met, they're exceeded—by several orders of magnitude.

You can feel the tremors of excitement ripple throughout the house when Brandon Niederauer plows through his electric guitar solos with the razor-edged precision and cocky confidence of someone twice his age. Jared Parker's slamming piano playing is always accompanied by a sly, angled grin suggesting (probably accurately) that you couldn't do as well yourself. Although she's preternaturally laid-back as the bass player, Evie Dolan has the knack to craft a killer line that makes her projected diffidence work like comic gangbusters. Good luck forgetting how show-stoppingly fierce Dante Melucci is on the drums. And when the tiny Bobbi Mackenzie opens her mouth to sing, you'll swear the polished, soulful sound that comes out is the product of a gospel singer with decades of experience.

Alex Brightman and the children.
Photo by Matthew Murphy

What's more impressive still is that none of these youngsters gets off one-and-done easy. They play multiple numbers in many scenes across both acts of this full-length (two-and-a-half-hour) musical, and are required by the story to keep upping the game as things progress. And at no point do they ever let you down, reaching beyond their grasp and proving they are just ordinary children. No, they convince you not just that they deserve to be there, but that they are already headliners of blinding brightness who deserve every shred of the immense career potential they would seem to have before them.

Not enough for you? The kids, who also include Luca Padovan as the excitable stylist and Isabella Russo as the take-no-prisoners manager, are blessed with an adult avatar to guide and shepherd them that has no lack of prodigious abilities himself. Alex Brightman, as teacher Dewey Finn, is himself delivering a star-making turn of the kind that's painfully rare these days. Bearing brilliant comic timing, serious guitar chops, a knock-out voice suited equally well for screeching heavy metal and crooning a tender ballad, and an effusive guy-next-door likability, he doesn't miss a beat in stepping into the role that Jack Black originated so memorably in the movie. But he still claims the part as his own, offering both a broader view of Dewey's hard-partying, manic nature and a more deeply wounded sensitivity that compensate for the theatre's necessarily larger size and scope but don't sacrifice detail.

Four and a half decades after Jesus Christ Superstar, Lloyd Webber still knows how to craft and orchestrate a rock melody, his tunes at once ultra-cool and searing hot, and they cook thanks to the aid of music director Darren Ledbetter (who conducts the seven members of the adult band that's also on hand) and music supervisor Ethan Popp. Put all these people together, and you have a ready-to-ignite environment for Dewey and the kids to make a huge, grin-eliciting splash.

Unfortunately, whenever Brightman and his glittering charges aren't center stage, School of Rock satisfies considerably less. Through some combination of Fellowes's libretto, Laurence Connor's direction, and the performers involved, all of the supporting characters are bloated and unbelievable, which reduces the impact of the band's triumph against the adversity that faces it.

For example, Dewey's friend, roommate, and one-time bandmate Ned (Spencer Moses), is presented as a spineless dork, completely whipped and emasculated by his fire-breathing girlfriend Patty (Mamie Parris), letting it be too easy for us to sympathize with Dewey's assuming Ned's identity and taking the teaching job that's rightfully his. Horace Green's principal, Rosalie, is treated as such a tightly wound, anal-retentive spinster (ill-fitting suit! thick glasses! hair in a bun!) that even the usually white-hot actress playing her, Sierra Boggess, can't unlock her latent humanity. (An early scene in which she warbles Mozart's "Queen of the Night" and a later one in which she lets loose on Fleetwood Mac are embarrassingly conceived.) And the kids' parents variously comprise a disinterested businessman, two gay perfectionists, and a homophobic meathead, all of whom are painted as clueless bad guys and all of whom, naturally, come around by the end. (No, that's not a spoiler.)

Similar problems crop up in the rest of the score, too. Lloyd Webber and lyricist Slater seem to not have bothered in humanizing those around Dewey, and have turned out a series of lame songs to emphasize the squareness of the Horace Green teachers and administrators (one is called, no joking, "Faculty Quadrille"). And Rosalie's only significant solo, her "coming around" bit in the second act, is a forgettable tribute to regret titled "Where Did the Rock Go?" ("Somehow I got older, / Year by busy year," she laments. "Guess the songs kept playing, / But I didn't stop to hear.")

There's no reason that this musical—or, let's face it, any musical—has to be dressed up in such brain-dead stereotypes and dramatic one-dimensionality. It's not even clear it's entirely what Connor wanted, as the few-expenses-spared design (sets and costumes by Anna Louizos, lights by Natasha Katz) and frenetic choreography (JoAnn M. Hunter), are of the straightforward, at-face-value variety. Much of the evening, then, comes across as one big, loud question mark. (Muffled, too, as Mick Potter's sound design tends to muddy lyrics when lots of people are singing and playing at once.)

The commitment that Brightman and the children display in making genuine their characters' plights and their attempts to overcome them only causes the other deficiencies stand out more. Each member of this group is doing exactly what all great musical theatre actors do: transcending the falseness of their surroundings to create a new and better reality through nothing more than their impeccably honed and applied talents.

Seeing them unleash all they have and then some is destined to be one of the most scintillating joys of this Broadway season, and worth the price of admission by itself. They live up to the dictum outlined in their signature number: "Rock the house and make a scene / And crank the amps to seventeen." That song, by the way, is titled "Stick It to the Man." Boy, do they ever. And, the rest of School of Rock aside, you wouldn't have it any other way.

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