Thursday, June 28, 2018

"School of Rock"

School of Rock
Julian Fellowes (Book); Glenn Slater (Lyrics); Andrew Lloyd Webber (Music)

The Cast of School of Rock
The man who began his celebrated, much-awarded career writing a rock musical when he was twenty-two (Jesus Christ Superstar) returned to that genre to premiere in 2015 School of Rock, an electrically pounding good time featuring this time not twenty-somethings, but kids aged nine-to-twelve.  Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) once again has struck a resounding chord among theatregoers, with the Broadway show (with book by Julian Fellowes and lyrics by Glenn Slater) now closing in on its third year on the Great White Way, with a show soon to be two years in London’s West End, and with a touring company making its way across the land, now at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre.  As over a dozen of talented youngsters run and bounce all around the stage – while also acting, singing, dancing, and often playing instruments – School of Rock zaps and zings with preteen energy and effervescence.  While the screaming and screeching of their young, high-octane voices can be a bit much and their much repeated jumping up-and-down soon wears its welcome out, their abilities to play and look like pros with instruments often almost as tall as they in the end ensure School of Rock gets a gold star and a solid, passing grade.

But there are also cast members taller than four feet, and it is one of these who is always center stage in School of Rock – a sloppy dressed, pooching-stomach middle-ager most at home when rocking out on stage, sitting with a beer in hand, or lying in a ball while sleeping late in bed.  Out-of-work soloist and guitarist, Dewey Finn, weasels his way to become the substitute teacher of all the aforementioned fifth-graders, cheating his long-time best friend, Ned Schneebly, out of the job ed was supposed to get. 

Rob Colletti & Vincent Molden
When Dewey arrives at the exclusive, private school (tuition, $50K/year) – late and looking very hung over – he stumbles into his class of munchkins as they are finishing music class, playing instruments like cello, violin, and grand piano.  Immediately, wanna-be-rock-star Dewey recognizes how he might revenge his recent booting from the band he started, No Vacancy.  He is intent in beating them in an upcoming Battle of the Bands with a new group composed of young, musical prodigies.  All he has to do is turn classical aspirants into hard rockers; do away with math and social studies and substitute rock history and rock appreciation; and convince the stunned and skeptical kids to spend most of their daily class time practicing while not drawing the suspicion of the school’s strict and prudish principal, Miss Mullins.

During his first foray into song to accompany his flying fingers on electric guitar, Rob Colletti lets loose his rough-edged, gravelly vocals to blast forth Dewey’s rock-star dreams in “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock.”  As he half sings, half screams lines like “At the top of Mount Rock, I’ll be blowing out amps playing stadium shows on my sold-out galactic tour,” Dewey bends, struts, flops, and slides his rather rotund stature over the entire stage, with no care of possible bruises or bumps. 

That Dewey could care less in the beginning about being a teacher beyond the $950/week salary that will go a long way to pay his over-due rent is quite obvious.  However, once he begins to recruit his students into a full range of roles from singers, instrumentalists, security guard, lighting and costume designers, and even manager (during a rousing, fun “You’re in the Band”), his Dewey becomes a full-speed-ahead steamroller to ensure stardom is in each of the kid’s (and his) near-term future.  Rob Colletti is not the greatest of singers, and he often seems like he just stepped out of an inane Adam Sandler movie; but Dewey’s uncouth, unkempt, unabashed manners do begin to win us over and to ease off enough to let us see the heart and caring that this so-called teacher develops for his students.

Although academics have been tossed out the window, what these students learn turns out to be the feel-good, inspiring message that Andrew Lloyd Webber seems to want us to hear about the merits of music education within today’s schools.  In this “pre-Harvard” elementary school, parents are mostly worried about their kids’ high achievements, often ignoring their children’s true needs and desires.  The students themselves protest this stance as they sing the moving “If You Would Only Listen,” one of the night’s best songs lyrically (but unfortunately delivered with a bit too much shrill stuck in highest volume).  But as Dewey pushes and prods the students to discover their rock musical talents, he also helps them unleash the parts of themselves that many of their parents have ignored; and these awakenings become some of the most memorable moments of the musical. 

Theo Mitchell-Penner
Lawrence (Theo Mitchell-Penner) is a boy others have shunned and sees himself as uncool; but behind the keyboards, he makes magic happen and grooves to become cooler than cool.  Vincent Molden as Zack is a Mick-Jagger-in-the-making as his electric guitar wizardry woos Dewey, his fellow students, and eventually his uptight, controlling dad.  Former cellist, now calm-and-collected bassist Katie (Theodora Silverman) and once-too-rowdy cymbalist, now rockin’/sockin’ drummer Freddy (Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton) also transform right before our eyes and those of their parents.  When all the students join in a number left over from the 2003, Mike White film – the movie’s and this musical’s title song, “School of Rock” – their voices finally back off of the collective near-scream into beautiful harmonies with wonderfully expressed feelings (making me wish Music Director Martyn Axe and/or Director Laurence Connor had made that decision a dozen songs prior). 

A girl named Summer is a headstrong, resistant force that threatens at first Dewey’s keeping his band secret from the administration; but when she is made band manager, Iara Nemirovsky sings forth, “Band, get ready and let’s groove,” bringing strong vocals that fire up the group beautifully in “It’s Time to Play.”  Likewise, extremely shy Tomika (Grier Burke) only needs to have a chance to be lead singer (not back-up, thank you very much) when her “Amazing Grace” knocks the socks off Dewey and an appreciative Orpheum audience, with that crowd-pleaser only being a taste of what is to come later when her little voice rockets skyward with great ease and power in a song she writes for the band, “Teacher’s Pet.”  Both Summer and Tomika prove that these highly talented kids sound their best when allowed not to screech and squeal.

Rob Colletti & Lexie Dorsett Sharp
While W.C. Fields famously claimed “Never work with animals or children,” fortunately Lexie Dorsett Sharp did not listen to him and decided to give it a go with these dozen-plus kids in the role of the prim-and-proper principal of Forest Springs Preparatory, Rosalie Mullins.  Her sparkling, tongue-in-cheek “Queen of the Night” aria from The Magic Flute is the first time we see glimpses that there is some gaiety and gusto behind those spectacles and conservative, blue dress.  When she loosens up at the local Roadhouse Bar with Dewey and lets loose with “Where Did the Rock Go?,” Ms. Sharp then delivers the night’s best song with a voice that shakes, rattles, and rolls. 

Anna Louizos creates a wardrobe of costumes that define the uptight parents, faculty, and principal; the sloppy but lovable Dewey; and the uniformed cuteness of the kids.  The quickly appearing set pieces also designed by Ms. Louizos take us from band stages to a classroom full of rolling desks to a faculty lounge paneled and perfect.  Natasha Katz’s lighting is full of any band’s needed spots and beams while sparkling with the pizzazz of a rock concert’s premiere.  Sound designer Mick Potter ensures that Martyn Axe’s background orchestra of a dozen-plus never overpowers or drowns out the classroom rock band on stage. 

With a book fairly shallow, there is never any doubt the happy, feel-good way that School of Rock will end.  The show’s choreography is overall repetitious and unimaginative.  The music is not Andrew Webber’s most memorable, and the delivery is too often (but definitely not always) over-done (fault of director, not of actors).  However, School of Rock is in the end heart-warming and even inspiring.  It is very often funny and always full of fun.  And by the sounds of the whoops and whistles on opening night, this touring version of School of Rock now at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre is definitely a crowd-pleaser – especially for the younger set.

Rating: 3.5 E

School of Rock continues through July 22, 2018 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photo Credit:  Matthew Murphy

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