Theater Thursday: “Mount Rock”–“School of Rock” Musical Review

At this point, film to musical adaptations are overflowing the theater scene. Most of them fail on arrival, while there is the rare occasion where they advance the original material, sometimes even surpassing their predecessor. Though that group is very elite, featuring such names as Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Heathers and a few others in its club, one of the Fall 2015 offerings needs to be added and handed a studded “Broadway Members Only” jacket. And what show could that be? Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock, adapted from the Jack Black movie of the same name.

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Now I know some of you will be having your jaw hanging to the floor reading that prior sentence, as this production from the start had a lot going against it. For starters, Webber hasn’t had a true hit musical since the late 1980’s (spoiler alert: it’s still currently playing at the Majestic), it’s based on a movie that most would say doesn’t lend too well to musical theater’s high standards, and personally, lyricist Glenn Slater (Tangled, Galavant) is not someone I usually hold in too high a regard. But somehow, through the magic of the cosmos and the all powerful spirits of The Great White Way, this show is pretty great.

The first act of School of Rock is a tad shaky at first. We meet our lead, Dewey (Alex Brightman), a wannabe rockstar who doesn’t have too much else going for him in terms of life goals. We learn of his rock ‘n’ roll dreams (“Top of Mount Rock) and see his living situation–including his teacher roommate Ned (Spencer Moses) and Ned’s cartoonish evil girlfriend, Patty (Mamie Paris). This is the aspect of the show that requires a bit more fine tooth combing, as many of these scenes seemed more like carbon dialogue copies of the film’s script, and didn’t have the spark and pacing required to bring on the chuckles they deserved.

SCHOOL OF ROCK - 2015 PRES ART- Pictured: Alex Brightman andn cast- Photo Credit: Timmy Blupe

The action quickly picks up though, as Dewey picks up the phone, taking on “the gig” that will change the course of his life forever. Is it a rock show? Being a member in a new band? Nope. He’s posing as a substitute teacher at a super high brow prep school–under his roommate’s name. And when Dewey realizes that his new students are more than just intellectual kids, he teaches them to “Stick it to the Man” and rock like never before.

Even with the slightly flawed beginning, it is clear from the start that Alex Brightman is a star. It would have been easy for him to do a straight up Jack Black impersonation, but Alex makes Dewey his own, with the kind of raw, electric energy that the role demands, plus a humble quality that makes this lovable dork even more, well, lovable. (Side Note: Dewey/Alex have totally been added to my Broadway crush list, and I am totally 100 percent okay with admitting that.)

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But the praise towards the cast does not stop there, as it would be a crying shame not to mention the brilliance of the kids in this show. Every single one of them brings a fun new angle to their character, and when you think you’ve found your favorite of the bunch, you end up loving another one even more. Special shout out to Luca Padovan, representing that Newsies pride and providing the best laughs in the entire show.

Sierra Boggess, Webber’s current musical muse, is also a lovely addition to the cast as the strict, yet charming school principal, Rosalie. Her chemistry with Brightman is a joy to watch, and her big ballad towards the second act “Where Did The Rock Go?” gets a very much deserved loud applause from the audience.

I’m sure many of you are mostly curious to hear about the music in the show, as that was definitely the aspect I was the most interested to discover. For what it’s worth, this is definitely Webber’s most pop friendly score by far. With so many catchy tunes, many have found it hard pressed to choose a favorite. Standouts are “Stick it to the Man,” and “If Only You Would Listen” (which when reprised, made this writer have one big sob festt–good job, Slater!). And of course, favorites from the movie “Teacher’s Pet” and “In The End of Time,” come to life on stage in the best way possible.

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The book by Downton Abbey‘s Julian Fellowes is a mostly line for line tribute to the original film, with some new additions that make the show–dare I say–a more rounded and possibly better experience than the movie itself. This particularly becomes apparent in Act Two, which brought characters that some consider somewhat one dimensional to a much realer level–or as real as a big fancy family musical can.

I’d also like to take a minute to thank this production team for doing something that Broadway has been missing, big time: big, physical, non LED screen set pieces. I know that sort of acknowledgement might “date” my theater interests, but the sets used in this show are absolutely fantastic, and for them to be actually there on stage, adds a whole new level of enjoyment for this theater nerd.

At the end of the day, School of Rock might not be absolutely flawless, but when it works, it truly dazzles and is thus far my favorite new musical of Fall 2015. There’s nothing like seeing a group of incredibly talented people, kids and adults alike, come together on stage and make theatrical magic occur. And with these younglings involved, playing their own instruments like they’ve been doing it for 20 plus years, it’s hard to imagine this show becoming anything other than a hit.

School of Rock is currently playing at the Winter Garden Theatre 

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