Andrew Lloyd Webber has returned to the magnificent Winter Garden Theatre, for nearly 18 years (1992-2000) home to his now-and-forever musical Cats. School of Rock won’t be leaving any time soon, of that I’m pretty certain. Exuberantly loud, high-spirited and upbeat, it’s a feel-good show for Boomers and, god-help-us, our grandchildren. While none of the songs (with lyrics by Glenn Slater) is equal to Lord Lloyd Webber’s best (“Memory,” from Cats, say, or “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” from Sunset Boulevard), they’re more than good enough and several add depth to the admittedly shallow pool that was Richard Linklater’s 2003 Paramount film starring Jack Black. For that, credit also must go to the genius of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, who wrote the book for the show.
Lloyd Webber himself is heard on tape at the top of the show, assuring the customers that the tykes in the band — cute as a Benneton poster — are indeed playing their instruments (just like in a John Doyle production of Sondheim!), and they are indeed amazing, even while being augmented by a substantial pit band. Youthful virtuosity can be its own reward, and School of Rock luxuriates in it.
As you surely know, this is the story of Dewey Finn (Alex Brightman, Matilda, Wicked), freeloading would-be rock god who is on the verge of being thrown out of the apartment he shares with ex-bandmate Ned (Spencer Moses) and his had-it-up-to-here fiancée Patty (Mamie Parris), for lack of paying rent and general squalidness. Having just been kicked out of his band Maggot Death (whose ticket to fame will be the song “I’m Too Hot For You”), desperate Dewey impersonates Ned to take a substitute teaching job at Horace Green, a New York City prep school (think Horace Mann, Fieldston) populated by the spawn of people rich enough to believe their $50K annual tuition checks are merely advance payments on the Ivy League schools their privileged kids are entitled to attend.
These are kids the ratty Dewey initially addresses as “spoiled douchebags” until he discovers that they are in possession of actual musical talent — along with the immanent seeds of angst, rebellion, anger, and self-loathing that are the sine qua non of rockdom. Inspired, Dewey forms them into a rock group that will compete in an upcoming Battle of the Bands — if only he can keep the uptight principal, Miss Mullins (the Little Mermaid herself, Sierra Boggess), from discovering his subterfuge. Miss Mullins relaxes by warbling the Queen of the Night’s aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute but nurses a passion for Stevie Nicks — a secret that Dewey will, of course, discover and exploit.
The whole scheme launches with the irresistible “You’re In The Band,” in which the various students audition for Dewey, and coalesces around the anthemic “Stick It To The Man.” Brightman appears to be a pretty cool guitarist but what a protege Dewey gets in the Zack of Brandon Niederauer, a prodigy who’s already sat in with house bands around TV land. Mention also must be made of Evie Dolan, Carly Gendell, Ethan Khusidman, Dante Melucci, Luca Padovan, Jared Parker and Isabella Russo as the various students who serve as instrumentalists, back-up singers, manager, costume designer and other band-type functions. And special mention also must be made of Bobbi MacKenzie, a Broadway belter in the making.
The show mirrors a little too baldly the Kinky Boots thing of having an overbearing nasty bitch of a fiancée drive the plot, and the stereotyping of the boy-who-would-be costume designer is de trop. These are not small issues, but they’re eventually subsumed by the fact that this is a fable and everything works out swell in the end.
Director Laurence Connor and choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter see to it that we’re never allowed to think too long about what’s just unfolded — it’s non-stop busyness from start to finish — while Anna Louizos has contributed her usual brilliantly humorous designs of sets and costumes, as has Natasha Katz the lighting. I’ll add another special mention, of sound designer Mick Potter for making every note and every word intelligible. You may have forgotten all of it before you leave the Winter Garden, but you will undoubtedly be leaving with a big smile. Maggot Death lives!