By Barry Reszel
The hint is delivered pre-curtain.
Following the usual (too often ignored) direction to “please turn off any noise making devices” comes this (paraphrased) show-specific announcement: “Yes, to anticipate your inevitable question, all children in this show are indeed playing their own instruments.”
To the uninitiated, this nugget of information heightens pre-show interest. But mid-performance of the first national tour of the Broadway hit, School of Rock, it’s clear that statement is this show’s most important take-away. When the stage becomes littered with diminutive rock stars singing “Stick It to the Man” with such unbridled gusto, one has to think it would make Libertyville native and “Rage Against the Machine” founder Tom Morello proud.
It gives a new definition to “punk rock.”
And so the stars of this Broadway in Chicago staging are just as likely to have stadium show dreams as hopes for careers on stage and screen. The School of Rock ensemble includes Phoenix Shuman as guitar playing composer Zack; Theo Mitchell-Penner, proving dweeby is the new cool as long as you can play the keys; Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton on drums; Theodora Silverman as the stoic bass-playing Katie; Olivia Bucknor and Chloe Anne Garcia as backup vocalists; and as Tomika (“I’m not a backup singer”), whose rendition of “Amazing Grace” might just be this production’s greatest musical highlight, Gianna Harris.
The rest of the students adding heart to this class of snobby prep school misfits includes “give me a gold star” Summer, played by Ava Briglia; fashionista Billy played by John Michael Pitera; and Carson Hodges, Tommy Ragen and Gabriella Uhl as Mason, James and Sophie and who also understudy other roles
The unlikely band comes together when a wannabe rock star named Dewey Finn, a freeloader in the home of his friend Ned Schneebly and his uptight girlfriend Patty, accepts a substitute teaching gig at a prestigious private school and pretends to be “Mr. Schneebly.”
In what can fairly be described as Bad Teacher meets The Partridge Family, (except, as previously stated, these kids actually play and sing), Dewey goes from a hungover and unsympathetic sloth to a caring coach leading his team to the vaunted Battle of the Bands and teaching a few life lessons along the way.
It all comes from the hugely successful 2003 Jack Black movie of the same name. Musical theatre icon Andrew Lloyd Webber acquired the film rights and began work with Julian Fellowes to adapt Mike White’s screenplay for the stage. Webber and lyricist, Glenn Slater developed a score that features several of the rock songs from the film. The musical opened in in 2015 at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre, where it is still playing. A full synopsis and production history may be read here.
School of Rock is directed by Laurence Connor, music directed by Martyn Axe and choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter. It’s dotted with musical highlights “You’re in the Band,” “Stick It to the Man” and the lovely Act 2 ballad, “Where Did the Rock Go?” But as a whole, the songbook is forgettable.
So, too, the adult characters are simply predictable caricatures, albeit exceptionally well-performed caricatures. Rob Colletti plays Jack Black playing Dewey Finn. Lexie Dorsett Sharp is such a prissy, rule-abider as Principal Rosalie Mullins that her transformation comes off as perplexing. Matt Bittner as the real Ned Schneebly is the most authentic adult in the bunch, showing legitimate care for his old friend and overbearing live-in girlfriend, way overplayed by Emily Borromeo. One can only think the adult characters are lampoons of reality (the prep school parents also fit this description) so as to make their talented children more believable. And that succeeds to a point.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is Webber’s name in the Playbill. School of Rock is such a stark departure from hits like Phantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar and others. It’s really rather curious.
But nits aside, there are a number of youthful reasons to see this production; they’re named in paragraphs five and six. Because when a show like School of Rock relies so heavily on the raw talents of so many young people, it’s unlikely to reach regional, much less community theatre with much regularity.
So enjoy this tuneful satire of posh parenting, and celebrate Dewey’s influence that allows some music to filter into these uptight lives.
Broadway in Chicago presents “School of Rock” through November 19 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.