Andrew Lloyd Webber unleashed his inner child to write the period rock for “School of Rock,” an exuberant feel-good musical based on the beloved 2003 movie starring Jack Black as a wannabe rock musician who puts together a kick-ass band composed of school children. While paying his respects to that manic role model, Alex Brightman maintains his own appealing brand of scruffy charm as Dewey Finn, amiably ceding the spotlight to a cast of super-talented kids who rock out on the kind of songs you always wished had been in the movie.
The creative team for this endeavor are clearly child-friendly. Having written songs for alley cats and toy trains, Webber has the ideal sensibility to relate to children whose freakish talents might make them seem a little bit … peculiar, in a world of average Joes. Julian Fellowes may be best known for writing “Downton Abbey” and “Gosford Park,” but he’s also penned kiddie fare like “Mary Poppins” and “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” Lyricist Glenn Slater is a Disney man from ‘way back. And helmer Laurence Connor, who has directed a number of shows by Webber, can probably read the man’s antic-child mind by now.
Thankfully, nothing savage has been done to the original film story — except to lay on the energetic rock songs that people tend to remember as having been in the movie.
Ever since Dewey Finn (the immensely likeable Brightman) was unceremoniously dumped from his flashy rock band (“I’m too Hot for You” is a hoot), he’s been sponging off his best friend, Ned (nice guy Spencer Moses). But Ned’s bossy girlfriend, Patty (Mamie Parris), lays down the law: it’s time for the deadbeat slob squatting in their basement to get a job and pay rent.
Desperate for money, Dewey cons Rosalie Mullins (Sierra Boggess, the golden voice of “The Little Mermaid”), the uptight principal of a respected prep school (“Horace Green Alma Mater”), into thinking he’s a qualified teacher. But little Summer (the adorable Isabella Russo), the savviest child in Dewey’s class of over-achieving kiddies, has her doubts.
Dewey’s dreams (“When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock”) are touching, but it isn’t until he realizes that his pint-sized charges are natural musicians that the show pulls away from the grownups and really takes off.
“You’re In the Band,” the best number in the show, is a spirited audition piece that allows Dewey (and a delighted audience) to discover the amazing depth of talent in his classroom. One by one, the sensational young superstars step forward: Zach (Brandon Niederauer), the amazing lead guitarist; Katie (Evie Dolan), the little darling rocking that big, bad, black bass; Freddy (Dante Melucci), the kid tearing up the drum set; and Lawrence (Jared Parker), the shy lad who comes alive at the keyboard. Webber supplied the precisely focused orchestrations himself.
Dewey is not one to overlook the other talents in the class. Tiny Tomika (Bobbi MacKenzie), a baby doll with a gigantic voice (“Amazing Grace”), leads the backup singers. Even Summer gets a job that suits her talents — as band manager.
The creatives have given the children a sensitive backstory about their parents and home lives (“If Only You Would Listen”) that’s missing from the movie. And once the kids name their band (“School of Rock”) and find their signature song (“Stick It to the Man”), they’re well on their way to the big band competition they’ve been working toward.
Anna Louizos should take a bow for the costumes she’s designed for this band contest — understated, but amusing variations on the kids’ school uniforms. And Josh Marquette deserves a special ovation for the shark teeth and other clever hair styles.
Rock on, kids, rock on.