Review: School of Rock, Winter Garden Theatre

School of Rock, the stage musical, shouldn’t work as well as it does.

The creative forces behind the show are all so disparate that it seems more like someone was playing the Broadway version of Mad Libs, than that someone purposefully put all of these elements in one room to make a show. But everything has come together and School of Rock is the charming result.

The show is a musical adaptation of the 2003 movie, which was directed by Richard Linklater (yes, the same Richard Linklater who made Boyhood). Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the music, Glenn Slater wrote the lyrics, Julian Fellowes (the Downton Abbey scribe) wrote the book, and it’s directed by Laurence Connor.

Like the film, the story follows Dewey Finn (Alex Brightman), an ageing aspiring rock musician whose dreams are crumbling down around him. He’s been kicked out of his band, and his best friend’s girlfriend (Mamie Parris) has informed him he’s going to need to start paying rent if he wants to keep living at his best friend’s (Spencer Moses) apartment. Desperate for a job, Dewey takes a substitute teaching job intended for his friend, Ned Schneebly. He goes to Horace Green Academy, where he meets the strict principal (Sierra Boggess) and his eerily well-behaved students. When he realizes that his students are talented classical musicians, Dewey decides to turn them into a rock group and enter them in the Battle of the Bands.

It’s a cute show, and refreshingly unironic; everyone is sincere and it works nicely. Lloyd Webber has written his most vibrant score in years, with a few numbers that really shine, like You’re in the Band’ and ‘Stick it to the Man’. Of course, this being an Andrew Lloyd Webber show, almost every song is reprised at least once and ‘Stick it to the Man’ gets three (that’s right, three) reprises, which feels a bit excessive. Still, they’re nice additions to the movie’s catchy tunes ‘In the End of Time’ and ‘School of Rock’.

Speaking of the movie, commendation is due to Mr. Brightman. He achieves the impressive feat of being likeable and not too creepy (even though he’s a schlubby dude surrounded by young kids), singing like a rock star, not being overshadowed by the kids he shares the stage with, and not making the audience wish they were watching Jack Black (who originated the role in the movie) instead. True to his name, Brightman shines.

Which isn’t to say that the ensemble around him is lacking: they’re quite talented, but all of the other characters feel underdeveloped. Still, the kids are impressive, nd they do actually play their instruments live on stage. But it’s occasionally difficult to understand what they’re saying and singing, due to poor diction and unclear sound design. Fellowes’ book has a tendency to fall back on tired stereotypes, which treat the gay and feminist characters too reductively at times.

All in all, School of Rock is a charming show that effectively communicates the importance of arts education, but it errs on the side of being too one-dimensional.

School of Rock is playing at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway and is currently booking until October 2016. For more information and tickets, see the School of Rock – The Musical website. Photo: Matthew Murphy.