Alex Brightman, the star of the new Broadway musical, School of Rock, is like the Tasmanian Devil from the Warner Brothers cartoon stable. He is a whirling dervish of kinetic energy, bounding from one end of the stage to the other. It is his performance that anchors the wholly satisfying production, based on the movie of the same name.
Like the film, the story, here written by Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes, focuses on Dewey Finn (Alex Brightman), a young man still fantasizing himself to be a rock ‘n roll star waiting to be discovered. He is obnoxious, lazy, a complete boor who can’t hold a job. Living at the home of his best friend Ned Schneebly (Spencer Moses) and badgered by Ned’s girlfriend Patty (Mamie Parris) Dewey is a manchild looking for his purpose in life. He’s been kicked out of his band and fired from his job. By happenstance he answers a phone call from the principal (Sierra Borgess) of the Horace Green school, an elite prep institution, who is inquiring if Ned, a certified instructor, would be able to come to substitute teach. With his friend not home Dewey responds in the affirmative, posing as Ned. He needs the money to pay the rent. At the school Dewey continues his slobberly ways in the class, telling the highly motivated adolescents to, basically, do what they want while he chills. It isn’t until he accidently hears them at their music lessons, producing harmonious classical melodies, that he becomes a motivated man of action, a man with a plan—teach the kids rock ‘n roll, put together a band, and enter them in the upcoming Battle of the Bands. What ensues is a fun and entertaining series of scenes as the students clandestinely learn, rehearse and create rock ‘n roll according to the Zen Master Dewey Finn. While initially disinterested and detached with the students, Dewey eventually become smitten with his charges as he helps them to find their inner creativity and self-worth. All of this leads up to the boisterous, feel good finale at the band competition.
Book writer Julian Fellowes smartly keeps the focus on Dewey and the children. The scenes with Ned and his girlfriend are kept to a minimum as are those involving the kid’s parents, the teachers at Horace Green and with the principal. Their involvement is really to help move the storyline along and provide some back story, primarily about the students’ distressed home life of unloving and pushy parents.
The music and lyrics by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Glenn Slater can be raucous and tuneful with a dash of traditional Broadway songs to help diversify the score. At its best, with numbers such as “You’re in the Band” and “Stick It to the Man,” the songs celebrate the youthful exuberance of rock ‘n roll.
The acting plaudits are reserved for Alex Brightman and an extremely talented pool of young child performers. Brightman, who’s Dewey Finn may be off-putting and lacking even the basic social graces, nonetheless goes full throttle into his character, never slowing down for the entire production. There is not much shading or pathos into his portrayal, but that’s not part of his DNA. The children in the cast are cheerful, sprightly and show incredible talent. While they all deserve praise let me spotlight just a few. They include Brandon Niederauer as Zack, lead guitarist of the band; Evie Dolan as Katie, who plucks out a mean riff on her bass guitar; Dante Melucci as Freddy, the wild drummer of the group; Isabelle Russo as the prim and proper Summer; Bobbi Mackenzie as the golden throated Tomika; and Luca Padovan as Billy, a Project Runway Junior wannabe. The other adult worth noting, Sierra Boggess, as Principal Rosalie Mullins, is given little chance to display her talents except for a few brief moments.
Director Laurence Connor does an admirable job pacing the show. While keeping his pedal to the metal for a good part of the production, he knows when to ease up, let everyone catch their breath before reapplying the high spirits and liveliness to the musical. Connor knows the audience wants plenty of Dewey Finn and the children and he makes sure their scenes are full of enthusiasm and playfulness.
School of Rock, a rollicking good time for kids of all ages.