Saturday, November 11, 2017

Teach Your Children (To Jam) Well: As a Stage Musical, 'School of Rock' Earns a Solid "B" — Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

School of Rock: The Musical
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru November 19

Given the preponderance of popular movies being turned into stage musicals, it certainly wasn’t surprising when School of Rock was brought to Broadway, especially as the 2003 Richard Linklater film starring Jack Black revolves around music.

What I wouldn’t have guessed is that the show’s composer would be Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Certainly, anyone familiar with Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Evita—and the entire breath of his oeurvre—shouldn’t be surprised that Sir Andy knows his way around a power chord.

Though I’ve come to like several musical theater composers more than Webber, he’s inarguably a legend who has created many an iconic tune, including in a rock vein. Even the notion of a "rock musical" owes him a great debt (though I think Hair was truly the first one).

And with lyrics by Glenn Slater—his collaborator on the Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies—the maestro has penned enough enjoyable songs to make School of Rock a quality musical, especially when the tunes are performed by a gaggle of talented kids.

In Chicago, on the show’s first national tour—it continues to run on Broadway and in London—the
movie’s Jack Black character, Dewey Finn, is well-played in lovably schlubby fashion by Ned Colletti.

Kicked out of a rock band he helped form, Dewey lies his way into becoming a substitute teacher at an uppity private school, in the guise of his roommate, Ned Scheebly.

At Horace Green School, he discovers the kids in his class are musically talented, in a classical vein, and takes it upon himself to turn them into rebellious rockers, weaned on legends like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and AC/DC.

Yet while songs like "You're In the Band" and "Stick It to the Man"--as played by Phoenix Schuman (Zack), Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton (Freddy), Theordora Silverman (Katie) and Theo Mitchell-Penner (Lawrence), though there's also an unseen orchestra--rock hard enough to get the point across and make one smile at the gifted kids, none nearly compare to the best of the bands mentioned above, or any other rock classics.

Although in the movie, the kids in Dewey's class performed new songs with Black on lead vocals--notably "In the End of Time" and "School of Rock," both reprised here--the soundtrack prominently featured music by Zeppelin, AC/DC, The Ramones, Cream, The Doors and more, with the children clearly being indoctrinated to such "rock history lessons."

I get that in buying the rights to adapt School of Rock into a stage musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber probably couldn't acquire clearance to use famous songs, especially those by artists a big bigger (and presumably still rather well-off) than those who sold their permission for Rock of Ages.

So that Webber, Slater and the musical's book writer, Julian Fellowes--who has a rather impressive list of film, theater and television writing credits--have created a song-filled show good enough to earn generally positive reviews, multiple Tony nominations and an ongoing 2+ year Broadway run, is rather impressive.

And that well into School of Rock's 3-week Chicago stop, the Cadillac Palace was largely packed, with a ton of teens in the balcony, bespeaks a good movie, strong rationale for theatrical adaptation, legendary composer, skilled collaborators, excellent lead, talented kids, other strong performers and decent songs combining to result in a rather enjoyable, quite marketable musical.

In addition to Coletti and the kids already mentioned, Lexie Dorssett Sharp (as the school's principal, Rosalie Mullins), Matt Bittner (Ned), Emily Borromeo (Ned's shrill girlfriend, Patty) and--among many enjoyable youngsters--Ava Briglia (Summer) and Gianna Harris (Tomika) merit warm praise.

And lending itself to one of the show's most imaginatively-staged numbers--by director Laurence Connor--"If Only You Would Listen" attests to ALW's continued ability to create a showtune that sticks in your, uh, "Memory." (There's a funny reference to that famed Cats song in School of Rock, but the joke was a bit ironically in the movie as well.)

"Stick It to the Man" allows the kids to adorably stomp around with punkish aggression, and Act Two opener "Time to Play" is another key song, though it seems to crib the melody line of Donovan's "Sunshine Superman" and the opening of The Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville."

And for me, the galvanizing, defiant, therapeutic, jubilant and redemptive power of rock 'n roll isn't theoretical.

"I Wanna Hold Your Hand," "Like a Rolling Stone," "Gimme Shelter," "Layla," "Baba O'Riley," "Rock and Roll," "Rebel Rebel," "Born to Run," "London Calling," "You Shook Me All Night Long," "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and myriad other of rock's holy scriptures have changed my life, and probably even saved it.

So a musical full of ersatz rock 'n roll--and no real classics, save for one Stevie Nicks song and a few famed riffs--doesn't truly get the point across, any more than middling, saccharine songs substituting for "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" or "Music of the Night" would satisfy my affinity for Andrew Lloyd Webber.

And fatuous as this may sound, I think the true "gospel of rock" is what inspired Linklater, Black and screenwriter Mike White to create the movie. In fact, Jack Black personally pleaded for Led Zeppelin's permission to use "The Immigrant Song," which was granted, rather atypically.

Though conceivably also legally forbidden, after the musical's performers took well-deserved bows to real-name introductions, I was hoping the School of Rock band of kids--who Webber himself, in a recorded pre-show announcement, assured the audience were playing live--would bust out some AC/DC or Bowie, Zeppelin or Petty.

But I was left to quickly channel some through my brain and, soon, headphones.

So at the end of the day, even though School of Rock: The Musical makes for a decent night of entertainment, it's not as good as the film, or a great rock concert, or the best ALW musicals, or far better rock-infused musicals about defiant kids (Billy Elliot, Matilda, Spring Awakening, Newsies to name a few).

It's good but not essential. I wouldn't dissuade anyone from seeing it, but also wouldn't urge anyone I know.   

As written at top--where classroom grades usually go--I give it a "B."

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