Lyrics by Glenn Slater and Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Laurence Connor
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“What I set out to do was make an experimental musical theater. Broadway is a museum that’s not moving forward, and musical theater should reflect what and how we are now — our pop culture, our political situation.” (Elizabeth Swados 1951 – 2016)
Broadway is no longer a museum with the recent arrival of “School of Rock – The Musical” on the Great White Way. Based on Richard Linklater’s 2003 film comedy of the same name, this new powerhouse musical with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater, and a book by Julian Fellowes is precisely what the late Ms. Swados envisioned as successful musical theatre. “School of Rock – The Musical” reflects significantly “what and how we are now” and moves forward in creative ways to address significant cultural and – perhaps surprisingly – political issues.
Dewey Finn (played with addicting energy and sophomoric charm by Alex Brightman) is kicked out of the band he started just before the Battle of the Bands, is behind in his rent and is about to be kicked out of his friend Ned Schneebly’s (played with a brooding likeability by Spencer Moses) apartment at the urging of Ned’s nagging wife Patty (played with an appropriate cloying callousness by Mamie Parris). Much of Dewey’s difficulty stems from his abiding faith in procrastination and sheer disinterest in blindly following rules. Music is Dewey’s life and his sole motivation. When the principal of Horace Green, the prestigious private elementary school, calls Ned to offer him a prolonged substitute position for the fifth grade class, Dewey answers the phone and seizes the day: he claims to be Ned and snags the well-paying position.
Dewey is not a certified teacher and plans to give his students an extended recess during his tenure as their teacher. This plan gives way to Dewey’s plan to teach the fifth graders all about rock music and enlist their help in winning the Battle of the Bands (“You’re in the Band”). The ensuing antics in the classroom are over-the-top joy to watch and hear as Dewey and his conscripts manage to dodge the watchful eye of Principal Rosalie Mullins (played with a guarded charm by Sierra Boggess). Keyboard wizard Lawrence (Jared Parker), lead guitar aficionado Zack (Brandon Niederauer, bassist Katie (Evie Dolan), and drummer Freddy (Dante Melucci) learn to play their instruments with ease and watching this quartet accompany the “choir” (the rest of the students) is sheer magic in the making. This quartet will make the audience fall back into their seats in awe at the craft of these young musicians.
It is easy to understand why some would attribute the success of “School of Rock – The Musical” to its addictive score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and engaging lyrics by Glenn Slater. The electrifying twenty-eight (some reprised) songs literally rock the walls of the iconic Winter Garden Theatre. However, in addition to making music together, the fifth graders successfully learn how to grapple with their insecurities, their fears, their doubts about self, and their identity – all metaphors here for “the man.” One of the show’s iconic numbers is “Stick It to the Man” a testimony to the students’ struggles with their parents for unconditional and non-judgmental love. Watching these characters as they confront and grapple with their fears reveals a transcendent level of success uncommon to the Broadway stage.
The musical numbers collide into one another throughout the two acts and support the story of “School of Rock.” “You’re in the Band,” “In the End of Time,” “Stick it to the Man,” “School of Rock,” “If Only You Would Listen,” and Tomika’s (Bobbi Mackenzie) solo rendition of “Amazing Grace” all grace the audience with splendid musicality and scintillating charisma. Under Laurence Connor’s galvanizing direction, the cast is uniformly excellent, each member giving thoroughly honest and authentic performances. It is so easy to connect to each of these well-defined characters and the particular conflicts that drive the musical’s energetic plot. Julian Fellowes’ book is refreshing and gives the students the needed back stories that make their conflicts believable and interesting. The members of the adult ensemble play their multiple roles with such impressive acumen it is difficult to believe the cast is not actually double the size.
Dewey and his prodigious students are the perfect learning team that exposes the dysfunction of the stuffy test-prep instruction of the prestigious Horace Green Elementary School by demonstrating how learning really needs to occur – authentically. Dewey challenges his students with a real world problem – how to win the Battle of the Bands competition – and they learn more about the fifth grade curriculum than any textbook could provide.
It is Dewey – and rock music only incidentally – that saves the students and rescues Dewey from his ennui and loneliness. “School of Rock – The Musical” succeeds because audience members can so easily identify with its characters and connect to their conflicts. Adults want to be Dewey Finn and children (of all ages) want a Dewey in their lives who loves them unconditionally and non-judgmentally. Kudos to the cast and creative team for profoundly moving Broadway forward into an exciting territory where craft knows no barriers, not even the flimsy barriers of age.