“The kids play the instruments live!” – Broadway composer Andrew Lloyd Webber
Webber’s taped pre-show announcement at the Broadway in Chicago production of “School of Rock: The Musical,” based on the 2003 Jack Black film, set the right tone for an eager press-night audience. If the child actors in “School of Rock” are accomplished singers and instrumentalists, it might be a fun evening. Cut to the chase: it was.
The stage musical closely follows the movie’s plot. Dewey Finn (played by Rob Colletti when I attended; Merritt David Janes at certain performances) is a rocker wannabe whose on-stage antics with a band called No Vacancy steal focus and lead to his ejection from the group only a few weeks before a Battle of the Bands competition. Dewey gets more bad news when he goes home: his best friend and roommate, Ned (Matt Bittner), a substitute teacher, is being pushed by his assertive girlfriend to demand that Dewey do what it takes to pay his part of the rent or else he’ll have to leave. When a call for Ned comes in from a prep school principal, Rosalie Mullins (Lexie Dorsett Sharp), offering an immediate substitute teaching job that pays $950 a week, desperate-for-money Dewey pretends to be Ned. Arriving late on his first day and suffering from a hangover, the untrained and inexperienced Dewey is a proverbial fish out of water when he enters a classroom, avoiding much effort as he tells the students early on to “take recess, have fun, leave me alone.” He doesn’t care about anything besides a paycheck.
Until Dewey hears the students play instruments in a music class.
Their ability to perform spurs Dewey into action. He sees he has something in common with the class members: music. He decides to educate them about rock and roll and have them form a band to compete against No Vacancy at the Battle of the Bands. The plan depends on several factors – the kids can adapt to new instruments and music that’s at the other end of the musical spectrum from the classical pieces they’ve played, the kids buy into it and Rosalie, the other teachers, Ned, Ned’s girlfriend and the kids’ parents don’t find out. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.
The stage musical was nominated for four 2016 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book (by Julian Fellowes) and Best Score (Lloyd Webber and lyricist Glenn Slater), and director Laurence Connor makes the most of this source material, helping Colletti portray Dewey as the kind of “lovable loser” a Chicago audience, especially Cubs fans, can laugh at and care about. Sharp is a perfect foil – conservative, prim, proper, by-the-rules until liquor and, yes, music (i.e., Stevie Nicks) cause her to remember a past when she could smile and loosen up a bit. And the kids are excellent across the board. Standouts include Phoenix Schuman as talented guitarist and budding composer Zack; Theodora Silverman as cello/bass player (with an attitude) Katie; Ava Briglia as star student, band manager and maybe future president Summer; and Gianna Harris as Tomika, the shyest student whose talent eventually stuns her classmates and the audience.
Two minor quibbles bothered me. First, even if the subject of a musical is rock and roll, you still need to make sure there’s an appropriate balance between the vocalists and the band members in the orchestra pit. If I can’t hear the lyrics – and there were times when I struggled because of the band’s volume – that’s a concern. Second, if Summer is asked by Dewey to manage the band because she can’t carry a tune, why does the script have her singing beautifully as the lead soloist in “Time to Play,” a number done by all the kids at the beginning of Act 2?
One big improvement over the movie is an added scene in Act 1 showing four students at home trying unsuccessfully to communicate with parents. “If Only You Would Listen” is the poignant song that follows. While “Stick It to the Man” is the catchy tune you’ll be singing as you leave the theater, and you’ll laugh a lot, this musical also has a lot of heart.
My recommendation: Enroll at the School of Rock. It has a more diverse curriculum than you might expect.
• Paul Lockwood is a past president of TownSquare Players and an occasional community theater actor, appearing in more than 30 plays, musicals and revues since he and his wife moved to Woodstock in 2001. Recent shows include “On Golden Pond,” “9 to 5: The Musical,” “A Christmas Carol” (2014, 2016), “Into the Woods” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.” He’s also performed in Get LIT(erary) and Williams Street Repertory LAB Series dramatic readings.
”SCHOOL OF ROCK: THE MUSICAL”
WHEN: Through Nov. 19
WHERE: Cadillac Palace Theater, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago
COST & INFO: Based on the hit film, this new musical follows Dewey Finn, a wannabe rock star posing as a substitute teacher who turns a class of straight-A students into a guitar-shredding, bass-slapping, mind-blowing rock band. Tickets start at $27. Tickets and information: www.broadwayinchicago.com or 312-977-1700.