School of Rock kicks ass.
Right from the get-go, as power-chords blast through the speakers and morph into a pulsating bass line and pounding drums; as lights (Natasha Katz) slice through thick chugging haze and reveal ‘No Vacancy’ live on stage: you’ll feel a smirk coming on.
These dudes may not have armadillos in their trousers, but they’re squeezed in in ways that make you fear for their manhoods and wonder: how in the name of anything holy did we ever find satin pants and sweatbands sexy? What were we thinking??!!
Then, Oh my god!! The Power Stance!! And the masochistic lyrics:
Girl we’ve been together such a long long time,
It’s been a great three days you know it’s true,
But now I can’t help thinkin’, something isn’t right,
And honestly, it isn’t me, it’s you….
I’m too hot for you , Babe you just can’t deny
I’m too hot for you, the mirror doesn’t lie…
Straight off, we know the adults are douche bags and everything’s alright.
Adapted from the Jack Black-Mike White film by serial underachiever Andrew Lloyd Webber – collaborating with lyricist Glenn Slater (Tangled; Leap of Faith) and Julian Downton Abbey Fellowes (whose ‘book’ sticks pretty closely to White’s original film script, which was ever so slightly subversive for an American movie: ‘I pledge allegiance to the band”) – School of Rock is a blast.
If you don’t know the story, it runs thus (Spoilers!): with three weeks till the Battle of the Bands competition, focus-pulling narcissist Dewey Finn is dumped by No Vacancy, the band he’s founded. On top of that, his best friend Ned Schneebly (Zachary Pidd) – the guy he’s sponged off for years – pushed by girlfriend Patty Di Marco (Nadia Komazec), finally cracks and demands the rent.
Masquerading as Ned, Dewey takes on the job of relief teacher at Horace Green – a preparatory school (wood panelled walls and portraits of school founders – set and costume Anna Louizos) for wealthy heirs to the establishment – where he’s a breath of bad air. There, he moulds a group of over-regimented, proto-Stepford children with aspirational parents and over-programmed lives, into Rock-Revolution-readiness, and a new band: School of Rock.
If Maria were an overweight-obnoxious-upstaging-alcoholic-freeloader, and the Von Trapp kids were amped, you’d get this Sound of Music for the not-so-new millennia. One lot climb the Alps to freedom, the other scales Mount Rock. There are however no Nuns, no Nazis and no Goats.
But the show hasn’t got a hope without a phenomenal lead actor and an amazing group of kids: this has both.
As Dewey, AKA ‘Mr S’ or ‘Mr Schneebly’, Brent Hill is high voltage. He rocks, he rolls, he writhes, he rages. While the characterisation is clearly tied to the Jack Black original, this is no mere tribute-band performance; he powers the show. Even at Dewey’s most obnoxious, Brent Hill is awesome, and despite the bravura performance, he never competes with the kids who seem to blossom in his presence.
There are three casts of a dozen kids singing and playing live in the show, all are under 12 years old – at least one of the cast I saw was only nine – and all are dynamite.
Jayden Tatasciore as Zack Mooneyhan is phenomenal. Not just a brilliant guitarist – he’s played, on occasion with an AC/DC tribute band – he turns in a performance that nails both the simmering defiance and fragile vulnerability of the character. While deceptively angelic looking Kempton Maloney as Freddy beats the crap out of the drums, Samantha Zhang’s Katie is sturdy crunching on bass and, as Lawrence, Orlando Schwerdt is a keyboard zen-master.
While for some reason Fellowes has chosen for Chihana Perera, as Tomika, to reveal herself rather later than in the original film, her voice is worth the wait and her rendition of Amazing Grace, is jaw-droppingly glorious. Ava McInnes as Summer could run for President of something, and probably will.
For the rest, Zac El-Alo, Maya Corbett, Riya Mandrawa, Oscar Mulcahy, Ava Rose Houben-Carter, and Lenny Thomas are all having the time of their lives.
The adults in every incarnation – parents, teachers and the fabulously lame No Vacancy- are unsparing in revealing the vanities and the limitations of the grown-ups. But especially Amy Lehpamer, a gorgeously uptight, buttoned down Miss Mullins – principal of Forest Green and secret Stevie Nicks tragic.
With over a dozen new songs, Webber has retained both School of Rock (‘you better get me to school on time!’) and Mr Schneebly’s improvised mini rock-opera (or possibly, concept album) In the End of Time. He’s developed Dewey’s signature philosophy Stick it to the Man and allowed the kids in If Only You Would Listen, to give voice to their unhappiness at parental obliviousness – it’s a song which skates just this side of sentimentality. There’s an Ascot Races vibe to Here at Horace Green and a gorgeous ballad for Miss Mullins, Where did the Rock Go?
If I have a quibble, it’s that the adult romances – extraneous IMO – are a bit trite and are tied up rather too neatly.
The end of the story is flipped.
After the kids liberate themselves and hijack a bus to get to the Battle of the Bands, Dewey cedes his dictator like control of the band over to the group, suggesting they perform an original song by Zack rather than what they’d planned. They have one chance to show the audience who they are, rather than play something that may ensure a victory, but the whole band must make the decision.
School of Rock don’t win Battle of the Bands and, in this version, Dewey explains that winning isn’t the point and anyway, none of the greats ever won anything (except Grammys and Emmys and stuff I guess) blah blah blah, and they perform a pumped up encore for the adoring crowd.
In the original story it’s the other way around. Dewey does his nut at the injustice of the band’s loss and the kids are genuinely bewildered at his attitude: ‘we played a kick-ass show’.
While the stage show is about a group of rich kids empowered by music (better than empowered by bank-balance, I guess) working collaboratively from the heart, rather than competitively, to win; the film charts Dewey’s journey from self-justifying narcissist to team-player.
I’m not sure which is more unlikely.
For those who may be aficionados of the original film, a warning: watch yourselves at the Battle of the Bands! Anxious – or possibly over-enthusiastic – to display your geeky expertise, you may give way to temptation and start chanting “School of Rock” over and over, at what you know to be the appropriate juncture. Resist that temptation! If you don’t, you may feel very much alone.
I know I did.
School of Rock is a joyful, big hearted show – worth saving up for – that feels as innocent as the kids themselves and loses nothing of the charm of the original.
Until February 1. Photos by Matthew Murphy
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