Susan Granger’s review of “School of Rock” (Winter Garden Theatre/Jan., 2016)
In this screen-to-stage adaptation, Alex Brightman plays Dewey Finn, the aging wannabe rock ‘n’ roller who is summarily fired by his own band. It’s the comedic role that catapulted slobby, manic Jack Black to fame and fortune back in 2003; Brightman echoes his comic energy and volatile physicality.
Broke and facing eviction, freeloading Dewey impulsively impersonates his ex-bandmate Ned Schneebly to get a job as a substitute teacher at Horace Green, an elite prep school. That’s where he transforms his fifth-grade class into Battle of the Bands contenders.
Following the plot of Mike White’s screenplay, the book been adapted by Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey,” “Mary Poppins”) and Disney lyricist Glenn Slater with the score composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber (“Cats,” “Evita,” “The Phantom of the Opera”).
It’s oddly reminiscent of Webber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” which was originally written for high schoolers. And this is the first time Webber has opened a musical on Broadway before London since “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1971).
While none of the songs are particularly memorable, Brightman’s enthusiasm ignites the terrifically talented pre-teens, who immediately endear themselves with “You’re in the Band” and “Stick It to the Man” under the direction of Laurence Connor, who staged the current “Les Miserables” revival, and choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter.
Starchy, skeptical Summer (Isabella Russo) is the’ goody two-shoes’ who becomes the band’s manager. Yearning to connect with his father, Freddy (Dante Melucci) defiantly takes out his frustration on the drums. Classically trained pianist Lawrence (Jared Parker) lets loose on the keyboard. Prodigy Zach’s (Brandon Niederauer) on lead guitar with Katie (Evie Dolan) on bass.
Encouraged by her two gay dads, tiny belter Tomika (Bobbi Mackenzie) emerges from her shell of shyness, joining the back-up vocalists (Carly Gendell, Taylor Caldwell). And Barbra Streisand fan Billy (Luca Padovan) becomes the band’s stylist.
Wailing “Where Did the Rock Go?” Sierra Boggess plays the uptight principal with a secret penchant for Stevie Nicks, while Spencer Moses as the real Ned Schneebly with Mamie Parris as his bossy girl-friend.
The production design is superb – from Anna Louizos’ flexible sets and imaginative costumes to Natasha Katz’s lighting and Mick Potter’s sound design. One suggestion: since the music is very, very loud, it would be merciful if ear plugs were sold in the lobby, along with drinks and candy.