Movies are very rarely made better when they are turned into Broadway musicals. In the case of School of Rock, onstage at Overture Center through November 25, the premise had a much better headstart than most screen-to-stage ventures.
First, it’s already about music. More precisely it’s about Dewey Finn a washed-up, wannabe heavy metal guitarist whose only real goal is to win the $20,000 prize in a local battle of the bands contest. It’s also about a pack of elitist, straight-laced kids who need more rebel yell in their lives and less scheduling from their high-pressure parents. And seeing nine year-olds discover the power of music to express deep emotions is fun, particularly when they connect to their inner Ozzy Osbourne by picking up an electric bass or guitar and playing their little hearts out — for real. Plus, kid-centered musicals like Billy Elliot, Matilda, Willy Wonka, and revivals of Annie have struck box office gold in recent years. Why not put a dozen instrument wielding kids onstage and see what happens?
In addition, School of Rock has a score by the legendary Broadway composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. Sure, he hasn’t had a big hit lately, but the man who brought the world Phantom of the Opera, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Cats knows his way around an orchestra pit.
The story is also indelibly connected to Jack Black’s breakout role as the lead headbanger and super unorthodox teacher in the 2003 movie. Black’s over-the-top-energy, rude charisma and passion for rock ‘n’ roll made the film a perfect vehicle for the stocky, unkempt and very funny performer. There’s only one Jack Black, but this larger-than-life anti-hero is a part that’s tailor-made for musicals.
So does it work as well onstage as it does on paper? Yes and no.
As the fake substitute teacher with a need to defy authority and rock his face off, Merritt David Janes pours every ounce of energy a human can muster into his ax-strumming character. He’s just a smidge away from an all-out Jack Black impression, but that’s not cheating, it’s giving the audience what it wants. Whether he’s divvying up parts for the prep school garage band or telling off his roommate’s bitchy girlfriend, Janes is an encyclopedia of accents, witty comebacks and big reactions.
And the kids — all between 9 and 12 — have a lot of stage presence. They really do play keyboards, guitar, drums and bass, and their strong, clear voices cut through Overture Hall easily. The type A, control freak Summer (Sami Bray) is both adorable and formidable as she takes charge as band manager. As Freddy, Cameron Trueblood attacks the drum set like a seasoned pro, twirling his drumsticks between sets. Mystic Inscho gets extra points as Zack — his lead guitar is as impressive as his emotional arc, trying desperately to get his father’s attention. Grier Burke’s Tomika comes out of her shell in a big way with an impossibly big voice, which drew cheers from the opening night audience. And as the socially awkward keyboard player Lawrence, Theo Mitchell-Penner really makes joining a band look like the key to cool.
A couple of Webber’s songs are catchy rock-esque anthems. “Stick it to the Man,” is a fun look at pre-teen frustration; “You’re in the Band,” is a celebratory stake in the ground for the new group; and “School of Rock” is a hard-driving finale. And the mock rock song “I’m Too Hot for You,” played by Dewey’s former bandmates, is amusing the first time around, but much less interesting in its third iteration in the final battle of the bands.
The clever school set, made by arranging large, wood paneled wall sections into rooms and hallways, is used to great advantage during the kids’ getaway scene when they sneak off to compete, and the transformation of school uniforms into rock band costumes is just right (scenic and costume design by Anna Louizos).
But there’s a lot of the 2 ½ hour musical that falls short. The rest of the score is unremarkable. The stunningly dull choreography for the kids’ numbers is almost entirely composed of them jumping up and down. One song? Sure. Two? Maybe. But no. . . the students spend the entire show either moving their desks on and off stage or jumping.
And the adult characters are either completely flat or shallow, walking stereotypes. The women, including Principal Mullins (Lexie Dorsett Sharp), are joyless harpies. The dads are football playing homophobes or workaholics. The over-protective same-sex couple has their daughter’s therapist on speed-dial. In short, the lazy book writing zaps the energy out of the scenes that don’t take place in the classroom.
Thank goodness for the happy ending, where Dewey and his students learn to collaborate, celebrate music and shine in their own spotlights. It is perhaps the best part of the show.