Theater Review: SCHOOL OF ROCK THE MUSICAL (National Tour at the Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago)

by Lawrence Bommer on November 3, 2017

in Theater-Chicago,Tours

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“Out of the guitars of babes”: The 2003 film was a four-star charmer: Jack Black, a screen actor with the chops to be richly ordinary, depicted a slob who saves himself by freeing others. He was, indelibly, Dewey: This substitute teacher rose, unexpectedly and magnificently, to an unearned occasion, liberating privileged prep-school tykes from parental pressures and soul-shrinking homework so they could “Stick It to the Man.”

Like The Sound of MusicSchool of Rock is all about redemption through music, how loner losers find their voices in notes. Maria von Trapp and Dewey Finn are hardly catalysts in the changes they inspire in themselves and others: They’re altered too—and, as such shows splendidly show, it’s all for the best.

In December 2015, when it premiered on Broadway, Mike White’s very American screenplay was almost as transmuted as its blue-collar bumbler. With a score by hit-man Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater, and a book by Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame), School of Rock was now a very accessible musical. Its supple pastiche score winsomely recalled A.L.W.’s “salad days” of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Lord Webber had come full circle: With this tribute to the anarchic inventiveness of early rock, he reinvents his original inspiration.

Now playing Chicago’s Cadillac Palace Theatre on a national tour, School of Rock has as much to teach as to enjoy. And here that’s no small feat. Happily, this 150-minute screen-to-stage metamorphosis preserves the jokes and jolts of the Paramount film, a hymn to second chances.

Recently fired from his guitarist gig with the rock band No Vacancy for upstaging the lead singer, feckless, boozing Dewey (wonderful Rob Colletti) takes advantage of a job offer given Ned Schneebly (Matt Bittner), Dewey’s fellow-rocker roommate and a certified schoolteacher. Desperate to pay rent and escape the tidal wrath of Ned’s control-freak girlfriend Patty Di Marco (Emily Borromeo), Dewey impersonates Ned, finding substitute work (at $890 a week!) at the prestigious Horace Green Preparatory School.

In, of all places, this ivy-covered enclave, Dewey, a proverbial “fish out of water,” encounters gold-star students with chips on their shoulders. Opposites who attract, under Dewey’s laid-back, kick-ass, and “ultra-cool” influence, he and his uptight math class gradually morph into School of Rock, an equally free-spirited kiddie combo. Literally jumping for joy and losing their inhibitions, a dozen middle-school misfits become their own reason for being.

As they rejoice in newfound freedom (“Time to Play”), each pupil finds a characteristic niche: Nerdy Mason (Carson Hodges) becomes the chief techie. Ambitious Summer (Ava Briglia) is the troubleshooting Manager. Child prodigy Zach doubles as lead guitarist and ballad composer. Closet-case Billy (John Michael Pitera) finds his calling as Stylist (though we never get to see his flamboyant costumes worn live). Far from being a backup singer, shy Tomika (Gianna Harris) turns out to be a Janis Joplin redux. (Her “Amazing Grace” is both.)

Likewise with the drummer, security guard, keyboardist, bassist and roadies—the band’s specialties don’t just fit the students, they grow them as classes never could. Who knew a learning curve could be a roller-coaster?

At the same time, this likably disruptive, “wild child” Dewey wins over the emotionally repressed principal Rosalie Mullins (Lexie Dorsett Sharp), a secret devotee of Stevie Nicks and old-school spirit (“Where Did the Rock Go?”). Even the sharply-etched, highly-strung parents (“If Only You Would Listen,” the kids lament) come around, along with the once-snobbish Horace Green teachers. If any or all of this recalls the total transformation that “Professor” Harold Hill achieves in River City, Iowa, well, School of Rock owes The Music Man a ton of tribute. A band is a band is a band, as long as you wake up to wonder.

Of course, it wouldn’t be fun if it came too easily, so we’re treated to the subterfuges and schemes with which wannabe Dewey tries to reclaim his rock dreams. He means to win the “Battle of the Bands,” the climactic resolution of the musical’s cunningly specific problem-solving. (Also required is Ned forgiving Dewey for stealing his identity and finally standing up to domineering Patty.)

JoAnn M. Hunter’s kid-friendly choreography and Laurence Connor’s rampaging staging raise up as much as bring down the house. The opening-night crowd loved even the set changes in Broadway in Chicago’s feel-good jubilee. Most wondrous are the dynamically diverse kids in the cast, as hungry for happiness as the hawkers in Newsies, the “lost boys” in Peter Pan, or the orphans of Annie.

Seldom has wishful thinking felt so inevitable, even irresistible, as in this turbo-charged School of Rock. And, if Andrew Lloyd Webber’s playful “new” score (returning to his joyous old stuff) makes us forget Cats and Phantom, few should complain.

Alas, despite the oft-repeated number, these trust-fund brats don’t really “stick it to the man.” The show’s one flaw is its fidelity to rock’s worst weakness—its perverse capacity to contain revolution rather than advance it. But sometimes going through the motions is enough. Like Dewey, if you run out of substance, fall back on style.

photos by Matthew Murphy

School of Rock The Musical
national tour
ends at the Cadillac Palace Theatre on November 19, 2017
for tickets, call 800.775.2000 or visit Broadway In Chicago

tour continues through 2018
for dates and cities, visit School of Rock The Musical

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