I don’t know if I dare classify School of Rock as the best musical to debut in NY in recent memory; especially in the wake of subject-matter-and-style mold-breakers like Hamilton and Fun Home; but can I say it’s my favorite of recent memory?
This admission boggles my freaking mind for a number of reasons. Two above all:
(1) While I have nothing particularly against Andrew Lloyd Webber, and have enjoyed much of his work a great deal, this is the first of his shows that doesn’t go in my personal “Guilty Pleasure” box. It’s a Proud-to-Declare-It pleasure. It’s just a good old, straight-ahead musical comedy.
(2) It’s a good old, straight-ahead musical comedy. All right, I’m half-kidding; I don’t really mean that alone sets me aback, but rather that it’s built upon completely familiar plot-and-character tropes; there’s not much story surprise, it’s all about execution. But what kickass execution.
Dewey (Alex Brightman) is a disenfranchised rocker, kicked out of the very band he formed, sponging rent-free off the goodwill of his best friend Ned (Spencer Moses) in the guest room of the house Ned shares with increasingly impatient girlfriend Patty (Mamie Parris). At risk of being bounced from his digs, he inadvertently intercepts a substitute teacher job offer phone call for Ned; and at the prospect of nearly $1000-per week paycheck, shows up at Horace Green, a private school for very rich kids, impersonating Ned and just getting past the strict scrutiny of Rosalie the principal (Sierra Boggess). Intending just to go ahead slacking once he’s in the classroom, he gradually catches on that the young grade school kids in his charge are very musical, and without quite intending to, finds himself galvanized to teach them the history and fundamentals of rock; the better that they might form their own group and compete in a big-deal Battle of the Bands concert.
The original screenplay is by Mike White, and the efficient and funny libretto adaptation is by Julian (Downton Abbey[!!!]) Fellowes, but for tone and trajectory, it might as well have been written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell (or if we go even more oldschool, by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond). We’ve seen variations on this formula many times.
But when it’s made to work, as in this musical, does it ever. Webber has written what may be his most straightforward, unpretentious, full-hearted score; and at a guess I’d say that having Glenn Slater as perhaps the first lyricist whose imprimatur is bold, craftsmanlike and witty enough to unavoidably, alchemically change the tenor of Webber’s game, delivering his best work to boot, had a lot to do with that.
I have a few little qualms about missed opportunities for Ned and Patty to sing by way of defining themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in workshopping the show, the creative team found that the story didn’t need them to sing, but it would make me wonder if the optimal moments for them to sing had been explored. Wasn’t there, can’t know, just a speculation. Does it matter? Well, if you’ve read this far, obviously not.
The direction (Laurence Connor) is well-paced and slick, the choreography (JoAnn M. Hunter) is character-driven and infectious and the cast, including the kids, who do in fact play their own instruments, is spectacular.
In re the cast: I had the interesting experience of seeing the show twice, with two different guys in the lead. The first time, I was unaware I was watching a standby until the announce-the-names curtain call, and I heard Sierra Boggess call out “Jonathan Wagner!” Of course, critics attending that performance were invited back to see Alex Brightman, and I returned not only to see the toplined guy, but out of curiosity to see if he could possibly have been better—because Wagner had been outstanding.
And he wasn’t. They’re about equal. And the role of Dewey is such that once you’re in the zone, there’s not much to do but go with its natural flow, which dictates a very specific energy and sense of timing. I found the difference between them small but fascinating. Brightman is just a little more insane; at moments of musical punctuation or ”reaction-shottage,” there’s a pop-widening of the eyes showing you that somewhere behind the whites there’s been an super-nova. While Wagner’s insanity isn’t quite so nuclear, his compensation is that he’s actually a little funnier. Where Brightman will favor a certain fleetness through a scene, content to deliver the big kill, Wagner never wastes even a passing funny line; he’ll get his laugh and sacrifice nothing in the way of speed. No matter which one of these guys you see, you’ll be in great hands for the evening.
And it’s a terrific, family-friendly evening.
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