There are many musicals that are absolutely identified as vehicles for the star. Shows like Tommy Steele in Half A Sixpence or Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady. Other musicals like Funny Girl or Applause were developed with a star in mind. Barbra Streisand and Lauren Bacall starred in these shows and are forever associated with them. What is unusual with School Of Rock is that Jack Black, who single-handedly made the original film a 130 million dollar hit, has not been involved in the stage version; although he may as well have been because the lead character, in both the Broadway and West End productions, is a mirror image of the Hollywood actor. It’s an obvious casting decision to recreate the successful performance of Jack Black, if a little strange.
Dewey Finn, a dopey, musician who has just been fired from his band No Vacancy, because he doesn’t fit the band’s image, is the central character of School Of Rock. Desperately in need of a job to pay the rent, he impersonates his flatmate to obtain a position of substitute teacher at the posh Horace Green School. Despite his total lack of discipline, or teaching methods, he wins over the trust of his students and turns these proper, music prodigies, into a wild bunch of individuals who compete in the local band competition as The School Of Rock.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, who bought the rights to the film and adapted it for the stage explained in 2013 that the musical needed to concentrate more on the kids, and not just Dewey, “It has to be a bit more rounded. I’d quite like to know more about the children and their parents,” he is quoted to have said. Unfortunately, this is where the musical falls down. What unfolds is something of a ‘one man show’, a comedy concert given by a Jack Black lookalike, except that there are other characters in this cabaret. Unfortunately, the script of School Of Rock by Julian Fellowes neglects all other characters and the show suffers because of it. In a film, where interesting performances are enhanced by the ‘close-up’ you can get away with focusing in on a winning performance. In a show, where people exist in three dimensional long shot, the focus on one character can undervalue other characters and render them superfluous.
Lloyd Webber’s musical additions to the soundtrack are good but they seem painfully formulaic, as does every element of the show.
The opening sequence of School Of Rock features Dewey’s band No Vacancy performing a strange number called “I’m Too Hot For You”. While it exposes the egos of the band members, and Dewey as a misfit, who they promptly dump from their line up, it is a ‘downer’ of a song. And not the best way to kick-start the show. David Flynn, impersonating Jack Black, does his best to get the show on track from there, but it only really comes to life when the children take to the stage. By the final curtain two things are absolutely clear: David Flynn works his tail off from start to finish, and the children are not only extremely talented, but irresistible too.
Laurence Connor (director) has loads of experience re-creating and re-working many productions like Phantom Of The Opera and Les Miserables for Cameron Mackintosh and Andreww Lloyd Webber. Most notably, he directed the Phantom 25th Anniversary concert staged at The Royal Albert Hall and the Les Miserables 25th Anniversary concert at The O2 stadium. Being at the helm of a new show is an awesome task for anyone. He, along with choregrapher JoAnn Hunter, has largely succeeded in pulling together all the elements you would expect.
Anna Louizos’s stage design is fluid and sits very well in the space of the New London Theatre. The show looks first rate. The sound design (Mick Potter) was sketchy; electrifying ‘rock concert’ moments overwhelmed other quieter scenes, which seemed to lack presence, and some dialogue was lost.
Florence Andrews, as the stitched up principle Rosalie Mullins, hits all the right notes in an underwritten part. Her song “Where Did The Rock Go” is a perfect example of how this show falls short. In one of the few deeper moments of the narrative, the song neither stops the show, nor sufficiently furthers our relationship with the character, or her dilemna. We are left wanting to feel so much more for the character than this scene implies.
With few opportunities to shine, Oliver Jackson as Ned Schneebly charms the audience with his comic timing and sincerity, but Preeya Kalidas as Patty Di Marco is stuck in a role that is simply nasty.
The reviews for this show, when it opened on Broadway were largely positive, justifiably focusing on the outstanding musical ability of the young actors playing the students. For most theatre lovers this will be more than enough. But, School Of Rock, as a new music theatre piece, has far too little meat on the bone and leans much too heavily on Jack Black’s memory, and the ‘cute factor’ of watching children on stage, to be considered a great success.
There is plenty of music, fun, comedy and hi-jinks in School Of Rock. And it will find a large audience and ultimately succeed. It will no doubt prove a big success with the amateur musical circuit, when it leaves Broadway and the West End, just like Joseph, another Lloyd Webber tuner. Any disappointment is aimed at the top draw talent involved in it’s development. We can expect more.
Go to School Of Rock, enjoy the energy and comedy of David Flynn, and marvel at the precocious talent of the child actors, there is enjoyment there.