New music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater, book by Julian Fellowes, based on the Paramount movie written by Mike White, directed by Laurence Connor. Until Jan. 6 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St. Mirvish.com, 416-872-1212 and 800-461-3333.
Who would have believed it? Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, rocking out with the kids.
Then again, Lloyd Webber earned his fortune (at age 70, he’s understood to be a nine-figure multimillionaire) by knowing how to deliver solid musical theatre entertainment, and the idea of transposing the sleeper hit 2003 Jack Black movie to the stage is — to paraphrase central character Dewey Finn — face-meltingly smart.
There’s a long history of musicals with the experience of children at their centre (The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins), and recent hits such as Matilda and Spring Awakening have found success by entertaining children and parents alike.
Young teens and tweens are likely to adore School of Rock, with its themes of rebellion (a central song is called “Stick it to the Man”), self-realization and underdog victory, and so many talented kids in the cast to relate to and admire.
The story, for those of you who are Jack Black-challenged (his larger-than-life screen presence does tend to polarize): Dewey is a schlubby wannabe rocker who bluffs his way into a substitute teaching job at an elite prep school, and turns his fifth-grade classroom into a rock band.
The Richard Linklater film is not a musical per se, but features lots of classic rock references and leads up to a triumphant scene at a Battle of the Bands competition.
While the movie was a Black vehicle, much of its success rested on how much it was also about the kids, and eventually became about both things together.
Dewey grows up and finds himself by supporting his pupils, and they in turn overcome helicopter parenting and the deadening hand of school restrictions by joining the band.
It’s a hackneyed storyline, but delivered well, it works.
The musical version premièred on Broadway in 2015 and played there for three years; other productions are currently playing in London’s West End and Australia.
The version that’s visiting Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre has been touring the U.S. for more than a year, and could use tightening up.
Some of the performances feel pushed, and the impression of technical imprecision on opening night (a bar of lights swung distractingly above a first-act scene) became genuinely scary in the second act when a set piece was flown in very quickly and appeared to nearly hit several performers, and the show was briefly halted by stage management.
(A Mirvish Productions spokesperson confirmed there had been a “technical glitch” but no one was struck or injured.)
The heart of the show is the kids’ performances, and this young touring cast totally delivers.
Sir Andrew himself provides a recorded pre-show announcement reassuring audiences that the young stars are really playing their instruments, so improbable are their musical talents.
Leanne Parks as bassist Katie, Mystic Inscho as guitarist Zack, and Cameron Trueblood as drummer Freddy are adorably great rockers, but my personal favourite was Theo Mitchell-Penner as keyboardist Lawrence.
The back bend he does during a solo is truly unreal, and he brings great pathos to the character’s social awkwardness.
At some points, director Laurence Connor has the cast working too hard to impress vocally, as with Grier Burke’s over-embellished rendering of Amazing Grace.
There’s also the impression that Connor and choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter have left the young performers somewhat to their own devices when they’re not central to a scene, though watching them pogo around gleefully on the outskirts of musical numbers is a treat.
There’s a burden on the actor playing Dewey (Merritt David Janes) to channel Black, and he does so well enough, though those who find self-indulgent man-children less than intoxicating company are advised to pack their patience. (Did we really need multiple scenes of him exposing his belly and towelling off his sweat?)
Vocally the role is a huge challenge — Dewey is onstage most of the time and leads more than a dozen musical numbers — and thanks to his strong rock singing voice, Janes holds the show together (Gary Trainor plays the role at some performances).
You’re in the Band, in which Dewey auditions the students while teaching them licks by his favourite groups (Led Zeppelin, the Ramones, Deep Purple, AC/DC) is a big highlight, but also points to one of the show’s flaws: The weakness of the music that isn’t rock-based.
While there are hints of Lloyd Webber’s past glories (Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), most of the numbers involving the adult actors (as teachers and parents) are pedestrian: I wanted to hit fast-forward to get back to the classroom.
Lexie Dorsett Sharp as school principal Rosalie has an extraordinary musical capacity and range (a running trope is her singing, extremely well, Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria) but she’s saddled with a drippy ballad called Where Did the Rock Go? that is likely to leave audiences asking the same question.
Lloyd Webber, book writer Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame), and lyricist Glenn Slater have updated the material and are clearly attempting to appeal to contemporary sensibilities by presenting ethnically diverse families and same-sex parenting. But the portrayal of gay dads borders on stereotype, and the already-shrewish character of spoilsport Patty has been amped up into a full cliché of a ball-busting bitch (fair play to Madison Micucci for giving the role her all).
Oh, but the kids, the kids!
At over two and a half hours, the material is overstretched, but as with the film, School of Rock gets better and better as it goes along.
The last three numbers (including an extended curtain call) that focus on the show’s young talent are total joy.
Karen Fricker is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KarenFricker2