Monday, January 25, 2016

School of Rock (Winter Garden Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Andrew Lloyd Webber is back at the home of his incredibly long-running “Cats” but though the mostly marquee and block-long billboard are again mostly black, this time, it’s not anthropomorphized felines but rather pint-sized rockers on display in the musical version of the popular Jack Black film “School of Rock.”

Alex Brightman, cast no doubt in part because of his resemblance to Black, gives a wonderfully manic performance as the would-be rocker Dewey who passes himself off as a substitute teacher in a posh grammar school to earn some cash, and utterly ignoring anything resembling a grade-school curriculum, teaches the first skeptical, then adoring, youngsters the fine points of rock, and channels their classical music prowess to something considerably less rarefied.

It’s the kind of performance that sets you wondering how he can possibly do it multiple times per week, not to mention on matinee days.

The versatile Sierra Boggess – who starred in Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera’ sequel “Love Never Dies” (written, like “School of Rock,” by Lloyd Webber with lyricist Glenn Slater) plays the school’s uptight principal Rosalie Mullins who loosens up in the second act, much like Sarah Brown in the “Guys and Dolls” Havana sequence, and sings one of the score’s most effective song, “Where Did the Rock Go” most beautifully. She also has a more than respectable go at The Queen of the Night’s aria from “The Magic Flute.” Well, why not?

Spencer Moses and Mamie Parris play the stock characters of Dewey’s goofy best friend Ned and overbearing girlfriend Patty with whom Dewey in crashing, rent free, much to Patty’s annoyance. But the marvel of the show are the wonderful kid performers, many of whom are playing their own instruments.

Of the vocals-only contingent, Bobbi MacKenzie is particularly touching as the painfully shy Tomika, with fine work by Isabella Russo as the take-charge Summer, and Jared Parker as self-esteem-challenged Lawrence.

It’s all highly formulaic but still fun, and by golly, quite touching at the end, with only a few moments that smack of the saccharine. Director Laurence Connor directs with an eye for pushing all the emotional buttons, with JoAnn M. Hunter providing the choreography.

Lloyd Webber's songs supplement about three from the original film, and it’s fun to hear in numbers such as “Stick It to the Man,” the composer returning to the rock mode of his early work like “Jesus Christ Superstar” and those pastiche rock items in “Cats” and “Starlight Express.” It’s also admirable and worth noting that he does his own orchestrations, a rarity among Broadway composers. “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes, in a polar opposite change of pace, has written the tight book based on Mike White’s screenplay for the film.

Anna Louizos’ attractive set (Ned and Patty’s pad, the school hallway & classroom, and concert venue) looks fit to travel – and indeed the show will tour, and schools will be mounting their own amateur productions, too. She also designed the apt costumes, and the whole is expertly lighted by Natasha Katz.

One quibble: Mick Potter’s sound design is rather unpleasantly overamped for the rock numbers; it would be nice to actually hear Slater’s lyrics, but the volume is clearly intentional, as the dialogue and quieter pieces are fine.

(Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway; or 212-239-6200)

Photo: Matthew Murphy: Alex Brightman and the kid band from School of Rock - The Musical

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Noises Off (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

This is an absolutely first-rate revival of Michael Frayn’s riotously funny (when it’s done right, that is) 1982 farce about actors putting on a farce in provincial England wherein everything that can do wrong does.

I first saw “Noises Off” in its original London production with the fabulous Patricia Routledge heading a spot-on cast -- and it straightaway topped my personal list of funniest shows ever seen. Subsequent all-star revivals in London and on Broadway never quite lived up to the peerless original, and certainly Peter Bogdanovich’s Americanized film with the likes of Carol Burnett, Christopher Reeve, and John Ritter fell disappointingly flat.

So I’m happy to report that the Roundabout’s latest revival is a side-splitting winner all the way, with each of the nine principals proving adept farceurs, and British director Jeremy Herrin – last represented on Broadway with the vastly different and decidedly uncomical “Wolf Hall” -- expertly putting them through their well-timed paces.

The first act shows the final dress rehearsal where it’s clear things will go wrong, the second act gives us the backstage view as romantic complications among the staff and other emotional issues threaten to derail the show, and the third act is the by now truly disastrous final performance months later.

Andrea Martin, in top comic form, is the befuddled Dotty who can’t quite to master her props, be it the all-important sardines or the phone, and whose liaison with another member of the company causes second act chaos. Campbell Scott is the weary director whose own romantic escapades threaten to undermine the production; David Furr, the hilariously inarticulate leading man; Jeremy Shamos, the nose-bleed prone Frederick; Megan Hilty the sexy resolutely unflappable novice; Daniel Davis, the old-timer with a worrisome penchant for the bottle; Rob McClure, the physically exhausted stage manager (and sometime understudy); and Tracee Chimo, the lovelorn assistant stage manager. All are terrific, and go for the emotional truth behind the belly laughs. They all play English most convincingly, too.

Derek McLane’s front and backstage sets and Michael Krass’ costumes – expertly lighted by Jane Cox -- conjure just the right provincial atmosphere.

Genuine farce of the British variety has strangely never gone over well here, but Frayn’s evergreen is in a class by itself and proves again a surefire audience pleaser.

(American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd Street; 212-719-1300 or