A young person, a little lost, uncertain of their career path, loves music. Thinks a career path is clear but keeps messing it up by showing off, getting carried away. A woman in power makes a request and, possibly at the behest of a higher power, the youngster takes on a surprising job, with no real qualifications.
The other staff resent the newcomer as do the children who will be in their care. But the youngster ploughs on, doing things their own way. The parent figure for the children has very high expectations of their conduct and behaviour, and little tolerance for improvisation or fun. Nevertheless, the newcomer perseveres, in particular bringing a love of music, a sense of collective fun and team spirit to the children.
The children blossom. The parents are confused. But at an important concert, the children sing together and are a huge hit. True love and freedom is their reward.
There are no prizes for guessing that that is the plot of The Sound Of Music. Curiously, it is also the basic plot of Lord Lloyd Webber’s newest musical, School Of Rock – The Musical, now playing its premiere season on Broadway at the Wintergarden Theatre. Yes, there are upwardly mobile parents rather than Nazis to contend with, rock tunes rather than folk tunes, no Nuns or Alps – but in many other respects, albeit with gender swaps, the basic plot is virtually identical.
Rather than Maria, there is Dewey; rather than the Captain, there is Rosalie, the principal of the elite school where a group of unhappy children are being moulded into the various specific requirements their parents dictate; rather than the Salzburg Festival, there is the Best Of Bands competition; rather than Brigitta, there is Summer. And so it goes on.
Basing the book of this musical, adapted from the Paramount film by Mike White, on the skeleton ofThe Sound Of Music is canny of Julian Fellowes. Together with lyricist Glenn Slater, Fellowes creates a fun, family show, stuffed full of appalling caricatures, heartwarming child action and neat moral messages. It is not ground-breaking or distinctive – but it is genuinely fun and happily diverting.
At lot of the material for the parents and Dewey’s flatmate and his girlfriend is, frankly, dreary and obvious. Not much of it seems particularly necessary. What works here is the simple stuff: how music and belief in one’s self can transform life; how listening and hearing are as important in parenting as love; how Mozart’s first Queen of the Night aria can be turned into a pop hit.
Well, okay, that last might not be simple, but it is classic Lloyd/Webber. In this work, he has reverted to early form, with a number of fun numbers which writhe with melodic interest and thump with percussive certainty. If you listen carefully, you can hear snatches or references to those early works –Joseph, Superstar, Evita – but on the whole the score is fresh, pastiche and engaging.
As might be expected, there are several cracking numbers: You’re In The Band, Stick It To The Man,Time To Play, Where Did The Rock Go? and the title number, School of Rock. But there are other joys too – I’m Too Hot For You, a shameless send-up sung by the lead character’s former band is deliciously silly, wantonly risqué and delivered with knowing indulgence by a blonde tressed Jeremy Woodard. The kids get a wonderfully poignant number in If Only You Would Listen, a hymn to parents everywhere who want the best for their children but don’t check on what the children want.
The ridiculous, but immensely enjoyable, showcase for Principal Mullins, Queen of the Night, shamelessly turns on the famous coloratura dazzle from The Magic Flute aria O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn. It’s a little much when, later in the show, the audience are encouraged to participate in the high notes with the cast, but if only one young mind is engaged enough by the use of the tune to explore the world of Mozart then job done.
Somewhat inevitably given the kind of show this is – loud – there are issues with the balance between young voices and the pounding, heaving rock band that supplements the onstage playing of the new generation of budding Rolling Stones. New lyrics in the mouths of youngsters are no competition for brassy brass and pounding percussion, not to mention booming bass guitar. Mick Potter generally manages to keep an even keel on the balance, but there are many occasions when it would have been preferable to hear the lyrics. Especially as Slater has done a fine job with them.
There is no point expecting a faultless plot in a show like this; the plot is not the point. The focus is on the children and how they blossom under their errant, slightly misguided temporary teacher, Dewey. The show really rocks when it is focused on Dewey, his charges and the melting of the titanic iceberg that is Principal Mullins – pretty much all of the rest of the material involving adults is all but unnecessary and forgettable. Everything slows for the histrionics with Dewey’s flatmate, Ned, and his loudmouth insufferably righteous girlfriend Patty, just as it slows for the machinations with the other teachers at the school. Director Laurence Connor really has no idea how to make those scenes and characters work – and they don’t.
But what does work, engagingly and with toe-tapping and heart swelling joy, are the sequences with the children. As the disembodied voice of Lord Lloyd Webber reveals sonorously prior to curtain up, the kids in the school band all play their own instruments – and it is fair to say they rock at this. None of the children here have that brash soulless “Broadway” style; each plays a character that blooms and grows throughout the evening.
They all sing and dance remarkably well, and act nicely/squawkingly as required. They run the gamut from politely straight-jacketed swot to grooving belting rock machine, each of them, and they do this cleverly and with the ease and grace of seasoned consummate professionals. JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography is cute and bouncy, and suitably adolescent. Good fun is the name of the game here.
As the prim and proper Summer, who starts off anxious and condemnatory of Dewey’s musical fixations, Isabella Russo is perfection. She is a sumptuous mini-Me to Sierra Boggess’ prim and painfully proper Miss Rosalie Mullins. Dante Melucci (Freddy, the Ringo Starr of the little troupe), Brandon Niederauer (Zack, the guitar soloist and budding composer), Bobbi MacKenzie (the shy Tomika with the stunning voice), Luca Padovan (Billy, who has feathers and flares on his mind when his father wants him thinking about football) and Carly Gendall (enthusiastic Marcy) stand out, but really every child performer here is a winner. None try to grab the limelight and each works very well as a team member, scampering and scurrying to achieve maximum effect as blooming rock sensations. They are a truly adorable pack.
Boggess is in excellent form as the Ice Maiden Principal. The Queen of the Night sits perfectly with her voice and character, and shows her silly side long before the beer and Stevie Nicks music convince her to, literally, let her hair down. Almost Dalek-like in her precision and cold authority, Boggess is the epitome of laced-up feminine power; so much so that when she finally bursts loose, with Where Did The Rock Go?, the moment is both exhilarating and somewhat sad, as the opportunities she has lost seem clearer.
But School of Rock – The Musical cannot hope to succeed without a stellar, knock-out turn from the actor charged with stepping into Jack Black’s shoes from the movie. The role of Dewey propels everything and he is onstage almost all of the time. He needs serious vocal chops as well as an endearing stupidity, a manic sense of comedy and a gentle, but heartfelt, growing adoration for his pupils. They must love him and so must the audience; more than that, the audience has to believe he comes to love the children. Without all of that from Dewey, the show cannot hope to succeed.
Happily, Alex Brightman is a magnificent choice as Dewey. A natural clown, his boundless energy and dry delivery, together with his communication of Dewey’s passion for rock, creates a whirlpool of infectious joy into which his audience – onstage and off – are enthusiastically sucked. A topical reference about voting for a woman for President brings down the house. His calling out of the self-interested parents is genuinely touching and his encouragement of Zack and his composition skills really rather moving.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the competition which is the pinnacle of the production is not won by the competing, newly rocked-up students, but this is for the better. They learn that playing the game, together and with a common purpose, is to really win – a lesson not just for them.
Some of the stereotypes and clichés that Fellowes uses are trite and, frankly, dangerous, but given the countervailing innocence of the children and the success they achieve under Dewey’s guidance and the change that success brings to other aspects of their lives, there is little to complain about.
It’s slightly too long, and too much time is spent with shiftless adults. But when it is focused on Dewey and his musical charges, this production is on solid ground and vastly enjoyable. It’s a welcome return to form for Lloyd Webber and with firmer, more dramaturgically focused and intelligent direction, this would be a solid gold hit.
Oscar Hammerstein II might even approve…