School of Rock is lackluster, but not terrible, and I suppose that counts as a victory of sorts in the increasingly crowded field of popular-movies-turned-into-musicals. It easily clears the bar, for instance, of Ghost: The Musical and The Bodyguard, two disasters at the Majestic earlier this decade; and one earworm of a song — “Stick It To The Man”— demonstrates that Andrew Lloyd Webber can still leave an audience humming. One of the curiosities of School of Rock is the generally high caliber of its creative staff, all of them top names in the world of show biz: besides Webber, there’s book writer Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey and Gosford Park fame), designer Anna Louizos (Avenue Q) and director Laurence Connor, whose new productions of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon have made a considerable splash. An adaptation of the kid-friendly School of Rock must have seemed a sure thing.
And in a sense, it is a sure thing, even a safe thing. The musical boasts a predictable, sentimental book — about a down’n’out musician who enlists school kids for a climactic Battle of the Bands — and a winning message: the triumph of grit over adversity. I haven’t seen the movie (OK, I’ve actually avoided the movie) but I understand from my film buff colleagues that it’s a rare and wonderful thing: a quirky film with lots of heart and a magical performance by Jack Black. The musical, by contrast, seems mechanical, even stiff. All the lines and beats are there, but it’s bit like watching a diorama of a film.
Certainly, though, the actors are game, not the least of which are a gaggle of simply adorable child actors — which isn’t a concept I thought I’d ever entertain. They’re actually the best thing about the show: the book scenes starring the adults are, by contrast, rather plodding affairs (especially the pointless “The Faculty Quadrille”) and the adult-heavy first half-hour is trying, indeed. (At 165 minutes, the evening could use some trimming — it’s approaching King Lear in length. But not complexity.) As the plot lurches into motion, and as our hapless rocker, Dewey, impersonates a high school teacher and surrounds himself with talented, inquisitive kids, things get better, and a brief romance between Dewey and a school principal (Lexie Dorsett Sharp) breaks up the second act’s relentless-drive-to-Band-Battle.
The cast, and the production, is a mixed bag. As Dewey, Merritt David Janes channels Jack Black well (and must be totally exhausted after every performance), and the kids are cute, cute, cute (including a solo turn on “Amazing Grace” from Grier Burke). Layne Roate and Madison Micucci struggle against caricature, however, as Dewey’s long-suffering landlords and friends, and some sound issues plagued opening night’s performance: occasional lines or verses were indistinct or difficult to puzzle out. Louizos’ set pivots gracefully from Dewey’s rat’s nest of an apartment to the rarified halls of Horace Green Preparatory School, and Natasha Katz’s lighting provides an appropriate ‘wow-factor’ for the climactic battle.
There weren’t as many kids in the audience on Tuesday as I had anticipated, and it’s occurred to me that perhaps it’s adults who are the target audience: grownups who remember ’80s and ’90s rock with a fond nostalgia, and whose vision of rock — as a vague fight-the-power movement — was shaped by those decades. If you enjoyed the film, you’ll probably enjoy the musical: otherwise, it’s safe to let it roll (and rock) on by.
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