School of Rock continues at the Winter Garden Theatre, New York.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
In a pre-curtain recorded announcement, Andrew Lloyd Webber assures the audience that the kids in School of Rock are actually playing their own instruments. “Emphatically” so, he stresses. And that just about sums up the sure-fire appeal of this new Broadway musical from The Lord Lloyd-Webber.
It gives the ticket-buyers the opportunity to watch a dozen prepubescent tots make music like rock stars and gambol determinedly in JoAnn M. Hunter’s jumping-jack choreography. If that’s your cup of tea, the show delivers a potful of it. It’s sort of Matilda with an American accent and without the malice.
The show is based on the popular 2003 film of the same name, which starred Jack Black as Dewey Finn, a wannabe rocker who by deceit and happenstance is hired as a substitute teacher in a ritzy, uptight prep school. Once there, he improbably transforms his students into a rock band and after some setbacks, he eventually wins over the clucking staff and the students’ parents as well, while fortifying the kids’ sense of self-esteem.
The show’s book by Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, puts some brazen lines into the mouths of babes, but for the most part it comes across as a one-dimensional outline of plot with no other purpose than to get from one musical number to another. The direction by Laurence Connor, who has won plaudits for his restaging of Les Misérables, seems content to let the story unwind in predictable fashion.
As Dewey, Alex Brightman (no relation, it’s said, to the Brightman lady once married to Lloyd Webber) delivers an admirably energised performance. He nicely echoes Jack Black’s chubby manic style, even though it falls a trifle short of Black’s incomprehensible charisma.
Offering the obligatory love interest, Sierra Boggess plays the repressed school principal who loosens up considerably after one beer. It’s a pretty thankless role for this charming performer, but she does get one stage-taking interlude with the show’s big ballad, ‘Where Did the Rock Go?’ in which she recalls her carefree youth. That is, I presume that’s what she’s doing. Except primarily for some catch lines and tag phrases, a lot of Glenn Slater’s lyrics in both this song and elsewhere were lost to me in the tumult of music.
But against its retinue of cardboard teachers and parents, School of Rock exists to show off the kids, and it does that exceedingly well. Lloyd Webber’s score – which interpolates a handful of numbers from the film written by others, including Black and Mike White – gives the little ones a host of convincing rock numbers to rage through.
Among the standouts, ‘Stick It to the Man’ bristles with kiddie rage, and there’s a lot of genuinely funny stuff in ‘You’re in the Band’, in which Dewy auditions his charges for their musical slots.
The band competition that climaxes the show takes on the electricity of a full-blown rock concert. Whatever the show’s weaknesses, it’s probably bound to send audiences home happy. And at the performance I attended, it also sent them streaming to the gift counter to buy really useful mementoes of – finally – another hit from Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group.