By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out)
It may seem an odd choice, but Andrew Lloyd Webber has chosen a 2003 Jack Black film vehicle as the basis of re-establishing his preeminence as a rock musical composer. “School of Rock” was a fairly forgettable film released in 2003 that also starred Sarah Silverman and Adam Pascal.
Its premise is that of an out-of-work rock guitarist who, by chicanery, is able to pass himself off as a substitute teacher at an elite elementary school. Black’s performance as Dewey Finn, a ne’er-do-well who inspires his class to take up instruments and form a rock band was neither his most lucrative or pivotal role.
But pinning the success of “School of Rock – The Musical” on the irreverent figure of Finn, a dimwit who galvanizes the prim and proper students of Horace Green into using rock music both as an emotional release and for their potential salvation, could have been a risky call for Sir Andrew.
With all that is riding on this venture, he and his production team might have desired hiring a known entity of star status to ensure success at the box office. Whoever was hired as Dewey, would have to play the role with delicacy, making him a sympathetic – not a pathetic – character who uses his love of rock music to inspire his young charges.
The actor chosen to carry that pivotal role is none other than Alex Brightman, a jovial and talented front man. One of the reasons he may be so successful in carrying off the part is that Brightman is also a journeyman writer and he is able to breathe emotion and substance into what was a fairly two-dimensional character in the film.
His boundless and positive energy on stage is engrossing as the story plays out on stage. Intuitively, Brightman senses this role – his first as a Broadway leading man – requires tremendous shoulders. He must also convincingly play live electric guitar throughout key scenes, which he does with reckless abandon.
Brightman’s ability on guitar and his natural exuberance is also refined by a book written by Julian Fellowes, the Academy Award winning scriptwriter known in more recent times for his writing credits on PBS’s “Downton Abbey.” The writing is smart, punctuated with lots of laughs.
But the biggest draw of this show is a fantastic rock score by Lloyd Webber, whom a few might forget, cut his teeth with rock shows like Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The natural attraction for kids to admire their own contemporaries on stage will also drive numbers of young audiences upward too, which in this decade defined by Disney dollars at the box office, can’t hurt.
In an announcement just prior to the opening curtain the composer acknowledges that, indeed, all of the youngsters are playing live on stage. Leading the pack in the pivotal role of Zack is Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, a virtuoso guitarist who has been favorably compared to a young Jimi Hendrix. He leads a pack of the most diminutive and most talented of stage performers (all under the age of puberty) to ever grace a Broadway stage.
In a fantastic coincidence, Niederauer became interested in playing guitar as a very young man when his parents introduced him to the very same Jack Black film on which the musical is based. He connected with the “School of Rock” film in such a finite way that he strove to emulate what he saw on screen and vowed to become a guitarist. Thus, his talent has been informed by the same film that Lloyd Webber is now banking on to garner him something that has proved elusive in recent years – another genuine hit at the box office.
Niederauer is making the most of his new-found success. In recent years he has jammed with the Allman Brothers, Dr. John and has been making the rounds at convention openings as a wunderkind performer. But he is only one of several standouts. As Katie, Evie Dolan is a remarkable bassist. As Freddy, Dante Melucci bangs out percussion on the drums. Also featured as keyboardist Lawrence is talented Jared Parker.
For the knighted composer, whose Phantom of the Opera establishes a new Broadway box office record every day it is open and whose historic run of Cats played at the very same Winter Garden Theatre for 18 years, it must smart that he has been unable to duplicate the blockbuster status he enjoyed in the 1980s. This is his first Broadway opening in a decade.
As always, Lloyd Webber relies on a lyricist and book writer to complete his vision. In this case he again teamed with Glenn Slater, known for his earlier collaboration with him in “Love Never Dies, ” and with earlier pairings with Alan Menken in The Little Mermaid and Sister Act.
Slater’s lyrics effectively advance the storyline, showing how a class of geeky kids could essentially become rock heroes. One of the best of the early numbers is “You’re in the Band,” documenting how Finn, as substitute teacher Ned Schneebly, pairs instruments with the talented pool of young performers. Determined to transform the students into a self-assured and polished rock group, he pushes them to enter an upcoming “Battle of the Bands” competition.
The titular song “School of Rock” is an anthem of dedication to the cause of rock music, while “Stick It to the Man” is a kitschy, well-choreographed number espousing anti-establishment values.
The audacious manipulation of the school’s faculty by Finn as the fake Schneebly, especially that of the starched shirt principal, Rosalie Mullins (Sierra Boggess), is fodder for the show’s comedic aspects and offers us an opportunity for the two leads to share a romantic moment, which of course they do. Boggess’ most difficult task in dealing with her role is to tone down her natural stunning beauty and give her the outward appearance of an academic. As the original voice of Ariel in the Broadway cast of The Little Mermaid and the leading role of Christine Daae in both the 25th anniversary cast recording of The Phantom of the Opera and the original cast recording of its followup, Love Never Dies, Boggess may suffer from having only a fraction of her talent utilized. (She does manage to get a bit of the Queen of the Night’s aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute early on.)
While lesser actresses might have been turned off by the size of this leading role, Boggess does her best to take ownership and reflects well on the time-honored adage that there are no small roles, only small actors.
In this production there is more than a typical share of small actors with big roles. These include Luca Padovan as Billy, a flamboyant costume designer; Isabella Russo as Summer, the no-nonsense manager for the band and singer Bobbi Mackenzie, as Tomika, whose big voice fills the stage as a lead singer.
Rounding out the other featured adult performers are Spencer Moses and Mamie Parris as the real Ned Schmeebly and his shrewish wife Patty. Standouts in the adult ensemble as Horace Green faculty members and parents are Alan Green, Casie Okena, Merritt David James, Michael Hartney and John Hemphill.
School of Rock – The Musical continues at the Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway. For more information click here for their website.