School of Rock is one of the many musicals based on a movie that has been woven into the fine tapestry of Broadway in the past two decades. Based on the 2003 Richard Linklater comedy starring Jack Black, the musical iteration from Broadway maestro Andrew Lloyd Webber that’s now playing at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre straddles the line of delightfully charming and instantly forgettable — but at least the kids have fun in it.
Following the same story of its source material, School of Rock puts the spotlight on Dewey Finn (Rob Colletti), an overeager slacker musician with a heart of gold who recently was banished from his rock band No Vacancy. Taking advantage of the hospitality of his loyal friend and substitute teacher Ned (Matt Bittner) and his uptight wife Patty (Emily Borromeo), he is presented with an ultimatum: get a job and pay rent or they’re kicking him out.
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In a moment of desperation, he poses as Ned to get a job as a substitute teacher at a hoity-toity private school. Not qualified at all to teach a group of kids, he BS’s his way through the first couple of classes until he realizes that music is his way to get through this gig. Against the wishes of his boss Rosalie (Lexie Dorsett Sharp) and parents, he preps the kids for the annual Battle of the Bands competition where he hopes to beat out his former bandmates from No Vacancy. While doing so, the kids and Dewey learn about confidence and tapping into potential they never knew they had.
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The story alone is set up for movie-of-the-week schmaltziness, but Linklater’s movie framed it in a way that made it cool, fun and heartwarming. The musical adaptation checks all those boxes but lacks the right amount of soul that makes it memorable. It’s safe, ordinary and gives the minimum satisfaction of a basic musical. Besides the rousing rebel anthem of “Stick it to the Man,” there are hardly any memorable tunes that stick.
As Dewey, Colletti gives a fun-filled performance which is essentially an impersonation of Black’s version of the character. With passion and genuine effort, he plays the down-on-his-luck overzealous dreamer with heart, but attempting to build on the outsized character Black perfected is nearly impossible. In the iteration that’s now playing at the Pantages through May 27, the more it seemed like Colletti was trying to get out of Jack Black territory, the more it seemed like an impersonation rather than a fully-fleshed out portrayal of the character. It’s a difficult role to shape as your own since Black owned it with his specific brand of slovenly bull-in-a-china-shop physical humor.
Colletti is the most tolerable as School of Rock lags with dullness every time an adult-centric number takes the stage. However, I must give credit to the musical for its inclusiveness with its bi-racial families and interracial couples. They even featured a gay couple which is fantastic even though they delivered over-the-top performances that bordered on stereotypes. Besides that, the adult characters were wildly boring and uninspired. When they had their time to shine in the company number “Faculty Quadrille,” I was begging for the kids to come on stage to break the monotony of the overwhelmingly saltine-cracker blandness of the adults with some liveliness and excitement — but perhaps that was the whole point of the musical: to make you pay attention to the far more interesting children.
I am not the one for precocious children. At times, a child’s precociousness is just a cute way of saying obnoxious, while other times it becomes so irritatingly cute to the point of nausea. The children in School of Rock strike a melodic balance with their performances, giving the perfect combination of mature awareness without taking away from the fact that they are kids. In other words, I wasn’t annoyed. Instead, they struck a chord with me, reminding me of how when we are kids, we just want to be heard and feel like we are valued, which is lovingly illustrated in the heartbreaking number “If Only You Would Listen.” The song performed by the core set of kids played by Theo Mitchell Penner, Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton, Huxley Westemeier, Alyssa Emily Marvin and Theodora Silverman has them trying to talk to their parents who refuse to listen.
Then there is the young Grier Burke, who plays Tomika, the quiet, timid student that you know for damn sure has a hidden talent. Throughout the first act of the musical, you sit on the edge of your seat waiting for her to slay. The payoff comes in the second act when she delivers a take-me-to-church rendition of “Amazing Grace.”
From a musical standpoint, School of Rock is a wonderful paint-by-number journey, hitting the appropriate beats without taking any risk or building upon the original source material. School of Rock is fun for the entire family — mainly for the kids because they are the best part of the show. Many of us had a dream of being in a rock band or musical act at some point in their childhood (for me, I yearned to be part of Kids Inc., Mickey Mouse Club, and yes, even the Silver Platters from The Brady Bunch). School of Rock allows us to live these dreams vicariously through these kids — even though the adults involved are total party-poopers.
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