I must admit I chuckled when I read Andrew Lloyd Webber and Julian Fellowes were going to turn School of Rock into a stage musical. Richard Linklater’s 2003 movie is the ultimate anti-establishment story for kids. Webber and Fellowes are, well, the establishment, so it was interesting to see if the success of this show could outweigh the irony. Happily, the West End transfer of School of Rock The Musical keeps the spirit of its predecessor intact, full of rocking tunes, snappy dialogue and lots of “sticking it to to the man.” It’s a wonderful show to take your kids to this Christmas.
Slacker and wannabe rock legend Dewey Finn (David Fynn) pretends to be his friend and teacher Ned Schneebly, to reap the paid benefits of prestigious institution Horace Green. Under the nose of headmistress Rosalie Mullins (Florence Andrews), “Mr Schneebly” transforms his tight lipped class into a kickass rock band, removing their organisation and unearthing their creativity. As unlikely as the premise is, it’s undoubtedly a fun one – the heavy metal Dead Poets Society, though one with alarming repercussions if you stop and think about it. Fellowes has largely remained faithful to Mike White’s original screenplay, though some of his alterations to the text feel unnecessary. The more-than-platonic relationship between Dewey and Rosalie feels decidedly forced, whilst references to the Kardashians and Pokemon Go only serve to date the dialogue. In fact there are pop culture references in abundance, but they’re much more Ben Elton than Book of Mormon – it’s a wonder we don’t get a Downtown Abbey shoutout, though Cats is a given a very knowing wink.
Glenn Slater brings a suitably anarchic quality to his lyrics, and Laurence Connor’s direction keeps everything fast-paced and fun (I’m in awe of his super-slick scene changes), but I’m most impressed by Webber here. You get his distinct tone within the music, but it’s great to see him exploring new influences. Zeppelin in ‘Stick It To The Man,’ the show’s barnstorming number, Black Sabbath in ‘Mount Rock,’ Dewey’s character lament. The best song is the one ripped straight from the film – ‘School of Rock,’ which Webber sensibly leaves completely intact here. Maybe on occasion he reverts back to his audience friendly schtick – with Rosalie’s ‘Where Did The Rock Go?’ it’s some welcome depth to an important character, but ‘If Only You Would Listen’ is too precocious for this show. Whistle Down The Wind it ain’t.
Fynn gives good Jack Black, though his Dewey trades energy for sarcasm, which is a good payoff. Andrews gives her all, and is surprisingly weighty as Rosalie – in the film she feels like a slightly throwaway character, so it’s nice to see her role beefed up here. Blowing everything else in this production out of the water are the kids. Simply put, School of Rock The Musical has taken Matilda’s crown for having the best child cast in the West End. Unbelievably talented, completely focused, but harnessing that wonderful, crazy energy that only young performers have. They also play their own instruments, whether it’s Katie (Lois Jenkins) rocking it on a bass guitar that’s bigger than she is, or Zack (Tom Abisgold) shredding and wowing in equal measure. Let’s reserve a special mention for Tomika (Nicole Dube), a really nuanced performer with some serious pipes to boot, and Summer (Eva Trodd), wickedly delightful, giving a performance far beyond her age and – I’ll say it – she’s better than Miranda Cosgrove. They’re all amazing though, and easily the best part of the show.
School of Rock The Musical is the hot new ticket in town, and it’s easy to see why. Joyously entertaining, humorously written, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best music in years. The kids make it though, go and see it for the kids. Consider the irony outweighed.
School of Rock is playing the New London Theatre. For more information, visit The New London Theatre website.
Photo: Tristam Kenton