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
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