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Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock Broadway review round-up (Winter Garden Theatre)

Evie Dolan and Alex Brightman in School of Rock. Photo: Matthew Murphy Evie Dolan and Alex Brightman in School of Rock. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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Premiering on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock is a new musical based on the popular 2003 film. It’s the first Lloyd Webber musical to make its international premiere on Broadway before coming to the West End since Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971, though the composer has now announced its transfer to the London Palladium in 2016. Following its opening night on December 6, Troy Nankervis rounds up the best School of Rock reviews…

School of Rock: the lowdown

Alex Brightman and the kids of School of Rock.  Photo: Matthew Murphy
Alex Brightman and the kids of School of Rock. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Sticking faithfully to the original film’s storyline, School of Rock follows the journey of failed rock-star dropout Dewey (Alex Brightman). The role, in which Dewey fakes the identity of his friend to take on a supply-teaching role, was made famous by comedian Jack Black. When Dewey discovers the music talents of his students, he enlists them to form a rock group and take out the winning title of the Battle of the Bands.

The production also stars Sierra Boggess, Spencer Moses, Mamie Parris, Evie Dolan, Carly Gendell, Ethan Khusidman, Bobbie MacKenzie, Dante Melucci, Brandon Niederauer, Luca Padovan, Jared Parker and Isabella Russo.

With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater and book by Julian Fellowes, the Broadway production is directed by Laurence Connor, with choreography by JoAnn M Hunter, set and costume design by Anna Louizos, and sound by Mick Potter.

School of Rock plays at the Winter Garden Theatre, New York until June 12, 2016.

School of Rock: the good reviews

Sierra Bogges in School of Rock. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Sierra Bogges in School of Rock. Photo: Matthew Murphy

In a four-star review published in Time Out New York, David Cote said it was a “relief” to see the “unlikely creative team” of Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, lyricist Glenn Slater and Lloyd Webber “successfully execute such a smart transfer of film to stage”.

“School of Rock has absorbed the diverse lessons of Rent, Spring Awakening and Matilda and passes them on to a new generation,” he said.

Praising Lloyd’s “jaunty pastiche score”, Cote adds you would have to have “zero sense of humour about pop to not enjoy” the “elegant melodies in among the boilerplate stadium stompers.”

“In general, the mostly English [creative] team pulls off the American humour and snark but also sharpens the desire to rebel against hidebound institutions (no surprise that the Brits get private—er, public—school misery).”

In his review for the New York Times, Ben Brantley called School of Rock an “alternative for parents” to the “infinitely more sophisticated” Matilda. “Like that British import, School of Rock is about schoolchildren whose joie de vivre has been squelched by adult regimentation and indifference,” he said.

“As in Matilda, it takes a major misfit to lead them to liberation, though in School of Rock it’s a childish adult with a guitar instead of a precocious child with telekinetic powers. And the new show — which features a thoroughly appealing supporting cast of young musician performers — sticks to the sunny side of the schoolyard.

“In this sense, School of Rock reflects the film that inspired it, which made a star of Jack Black as Dewey, the perpetually hungover slob who takes up a (fraudulent) career in substitute teaching when he’s kicked out of his rock band. That movie avoided terminal corniness by staying as shaggily upbeat as its hero.”

For these reasons, Brantley said the production is rather “easy to swallow”, “in large part because everyone involved seems to be having such a fine time”.

“That includes Mr Lloyd Webber, whose insistent signature melodiousness paradoxically feels less insidious when it’s given a pumped-up decibel count. Like Ms Boggess’s principal, he’s letting down his hair and shaking it off, with scarcely a hint of a stiff neck.”

In his review for Entertainment Weekly, Jesse Oxfold said the best thing “on the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre are the dozen or so unknown kids who steal the show, many of them making their Broadway debuts”.

“They bring to what might otherwise be a dutiful screen-to-stage retread an inspiring jolt of energy, joy, whimsy, and – do the kids still say this? – mad skillz,” he said.
While he notes School of Rock isn’t perfect, he concedes that “if, as the musical suggests, perfection is less the point than trying hard and having fun doing so, then it succeeds.”

“If the children are in fact our future, School of Rock suggests we’re in pretty good hands”.

Writing for Vogue, Michelle Ruiz also recognises the young ensemble, calling it a “remarkable” feat to see them all performing with musical instruments on stage.

“With crashing cymbals and bright lights blazing in your eyes, School of Rock is like a micro rock concert, except the ‘booze’ comes in Broadway’s de facto sippy cups, many of the groupies in the front row are in elementary school,” she said.

Praising Alex Brightman for delivering a “ball of energy to rival his tween costars”, Ruiz said the cast capably delivers a “totally delightful, purely entertaining, the crowd-pleasing kind of show (like Jersey Boys or Mamma Mia!) — that you can bring your kids and out-of-town cousins to”.

“Not liking it is akin to not liking fun. And if you don’t, it’s going to rock on without you”.

School of Rock: the bad reviews

Theatre critic Alexis Soloski said while “please and please it does”, the production doesn’t “rock” in his three-star review published in The Guardian.

“The early musical numbers are unhappily anodyne. We know we’re in trouble when No Vacancy, ostensibly a hard-rocking hair metal act, sounds like emasculated power pop,” he said.

Soloski adds some of the magic behind the role made famous by Jack Black has been lost in Alex Brightman’s take on the character in the stage transfer.

“The movie worked as well as it did because Black has an unlikely, ungovernable, unbottle-able charisma. Mr Brightman is merely quite likeable, which makes it harder to invest in a loser like Dewey,” he said.

“His stereotyped roommates, one a shrew, one a milquetoast, aren’t very rewarding roles and neither is that of the uptight Principal Mullins, played by Lloyd Webber regular Sierra Boggess. She gets the power ballad, Where Did the Rock Go?, and she sounds terrific, but shouldn’t a song like that actually rock at least a little?”

In his review published in the LA Times, Charles McNulty said the teen ensemble behind Brightman’s Dewey not only try “to salvage their wacko teacher’s dream of transforming their nerdy selves into a hard-core rock group, but they are doing all they can to redeem this synthetic stage adaptation.”

Calling the kids “downright charming” and a “breath of fresh air in a musical that too often settles for stale competence,” Mc Nulty criticises the “cobbled together” book, likening it to the “bloated operetta style he [Lloyd Webber] established through such megahits as Evita and The Phantom of the Opera.”

“As adaptations go, this is journeyman work, consisting more of alterations than bespoke tailoring. Fellowes, taking a no-nonsense approach to the job, preserves the gags and efficiently replicates the plot,” he said.

Yet despite its shortcomings, McNulty said the musical “holds up rock as a utopian alternative to the over-structured, hypercompetitive world of private education”. “School of Rock squeaks by with the lowest of passing grades, but each and every young actor in the cast deserves to be on Broadway’s honour role.”

In his review for The Wrap, Robert Hofler said the production is let down by Julian Fellowes’ “faithful-to-a-fault adaption” and would have benefited from a “complete overhaul for the stage”. “He’s so out of it with School of Rock that he makes a joke about a 12-year-old gay student being into Barbra Streisand. Beyonce, maybe, or Lady Gaga. But Barbra in 2015?”

Hofler also pans the performances of the adult cast members throughout, starting with Dewey’s Alex Brightman who he says, while “full of energy”, “acts like a slob” for most of the show. “Missing completely is that anarchic edge of comedy. Black, on the other hand, acted and looked like Dennis the Menace gone to early seed,” he said.

“In the film version, Black is more than ably supported by two comedians, Sarah Silverman and Joan Cusack, who bring oddball timing and quirky line readings to their respective roles as a livid apartment mate and the school’s inhibited principal.

“On stage, we get Mamie Parris and Sierra Boggess, who are humourless in their abrasive portrayals under the strictly middle-school direction of Laurence Connor.”

Equally critical of the production is Christopher Kelly, who said in a three-star review for NJ.com School of Rock would “win no prizes for originality“.

“You could wish that choreographer JoAnn M Hunter had come up with something more inventive than the stomp-heavy moves so reminiscent of the dance numbers in Matilda,” he said.

“You could also complain that the two main female parts, Ned’s strident girlfriend (Mammie Parris) and the school’s repressed principal (Sierra Borgess), are such tired, rhymes-with-witch cliches”.

“Or you could sit back and enjoy a musical that reminds us that “family-family entertainment” need not also be an insult to a grown-up’s intelligence and good taste. “School of Rock” may not be one for the history books, but it nonetheless has plenty of valuable lessons to teach.”

Mark Shenton: Lloyd Webber’s epic theatrical journey adds a new twist with School of Rock
Mark Shenton: This is not a review of Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock on Broadway
Read more theatre reviews on The Stage

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