SCHOOL OF ROCK: THE MUSICAL

★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
at _THE ALEXANDRA.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _29th JAN.

February 1, 2022

images © Paul Coltas.

There are a lot of plates to spin when attempting to rationalise the existence of School of Rock the Musical. Sure, there have been more suspect choices for adapting into musical form (The X Factor springing to mind as the source ‘material’ for Viva Forever and I Can’t Sing! – both notorious flops), but few would have anticipated the moderately successful 2003 Jack Black vehicle as being an obvious fit for the stage.

The industry-savvy may cue up the likes of Matilda the Musical and Nativity!, for heralding in the ‘lovable school kids as stars of a critically and publicly acclaimed show’ sub-genre, and being a tempting creative cake that Andrew Lloyd-Webber and co. fancied a slice of. But, his early days and Jesus Christ Superstar’s very narratively-driven pop punk temporarily aside, even family-friendly rock isn’t particularly in Lloyd-Webber’s conventional wheelhouse, and throwing in Julian Fellowes – more comfortable with Downton Abbey than AC/DC – to write the book just on paper alone seems to spell a cluster bomb and misfire of potential epic proportions.

Which makes it a little surprising to say that, for the most part, School of Rock just about works. It’s carried in this UK tour on the shoulders of a wonderfully talented company – old and young alike – and there’s always real joy to be had in witnessing the birth of some of the stage stars of tomorrow, but, winning performances aside, perhaps Rock’s biggest cardinal sin is that it just isn’t frightfully memorable.

Most of this stems from the original film not really needing to be a musical. The best moments of the show are when layabout goof Dewey Finn (a barnstorming Jake Sharp), who has scammed his way into substituting a class at elite private school Horace Green, finally whips up a frenzy in his charges and turns them into an all-singing, all-dancing, all-playing (as Lloyd-Webber’s ethereal voiceover informs us at the outset) miniature rock troupe.

A lot of the narrative padding and setup around this is painfully rote. Almost every child has a strained relationship with their distracted/overbearing/sports-minded/career-driven parent(s) – delete as applicable. No son, you will not read Vogue, you will watch football …it was choice by the time Glee wheeled it out in 2009. Thirteen years on, it’s just tired.

The original School of Rock starred Jack Black and Joan Cusack in the lead roles, and was a moderate Box Office hit, as well as garnering Black a Golden Globe Nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role – Musical/Comedy.

It doesn’t help, either, that Finn as a protagonist is more than a little problematic, and as is true of a number of the threads pulled directly from the source, a lot of it hasn’t aged particularly brilliantly. The inclusion of a same-sex parentage is debased by dint of it being borderline offensively sterotypical. Late-game revelations get washed away fairly inconsequently, and a romance subplot is so cookie-cutter, ‘thaw the ice queen’ predictable that it’s only saved by dint of the two lead’s admittedly brilliant performances. Rebecca Lock completely elevates her material and is a delight throughout, even on such a dryly familiar trajectory, and Sharp makes his Finn a loveable, entertaining presence who channels the spirit of Jack Black without just sending him up.

If this all sounds overly cynical, it’s perhaps only so glaring because of the calibre of talent on display, which extends beyond the players into the show’s audiovisual impact. School of Rock looks and sounds like it could easily belong on the West End (perhaps because it once did), and there’s been little-to-no compromise by dint of it being taken on the road (the gods of rock would have it no other way, naturally).

The original School of Rock starred Jack Black and Joan Cusack in the lead roles, and was a moderate Box Office hit, as well as garnering Black a Golden Globe Nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role – Musical/Comedy.

And, as mentioned, the cast are a thrill to behold. Nadia Violet Johnson plays the quintessential overbearing girlfriend type with absolute relish, even if the level-headed would acknowledge her Patty – depicted here as relentless bitch, model 2.0 – actually has the healthiest and most pragmatic attitude to everything going down, particularly given her high-ranking position. Matthew Rowland is suitably dorky as Finn’s torn friend – and unlucky recipient of his identity theft – with a crowd-pleasing late-game turnabout. And, as mentioned, Rebecca Lock gives an absolute masterclass in making the most with the least. Her soul-searching Act II solo is – musically, performance and writing-wise – one of the strongest beats of the entire thing.

“…it’s the kids who audiences will go home beaming over, and rightly so.”

But it’s the kids who audiences will go home beaming over, and rightly so. It feels cruel to single any out, as they’re all superb, but in the performance reviewed young Logan Matthews shone as the ‘flamboyant and artistic’ Billy (the show’s own description of the character), Angus McDougall got plenty of laughs as the awkward Lawrence, struggling with being just not cool enough for school but turns out to be a pianist/keyboarder extraordinaire, and Chloe Marler gave great face and attitude as sassy bassist Katie.

Particular mention has to go, though, to Keira Laver, who gave probably the performance of the night as spoiled, bossy young student Summer. As well as masterfully charting the character’s journey from insufferable know-all to irrepressible manager of the newly-formed band, Laver sold every beat, note and moment of her evolving character. Sure, it’s another archetype mould we’ve seen before – the jobsworth teacher’s pet who becomes an invaluable ally – but Laver absolutely knocks it out the park. Watch on in awe as she completely commands the stage in owning the Act II opener which falls entirely on her shoulders, and soak in the thrill of witnessing almost without doubt a future Elphaba, Christine or Eva Peron.

It bears repeating, though; School of Rock didn’t need to be a musical. Its strongest moments are almost one-to-one transplants from the film, and, Lock’s solo aside, most of the new actual musical numbers (i.e. separate from the band) commit the cardinal double-whammy of being both forgettable and repetitive. There’s a nifty titular leitmotif peppered throughout, but aside from that, all the story really needs are the performances spent with the band.

Thankfully, there are enough of these, and the infectious feel-good that the young cast and the show’s two leads in particular imbue it with is enough to certainly keep the audience on side right through to a suitably thumping curtain call, but in the coveted company of its sub-genre peers, School of Rock lacks both Matilda’s knowing wit and wordplay, or much of Nativity!’s sincerity and instant earworms. And whilst comparison may, indeed, be the thief of joy, even by its own merits, Rock is stuffed with the overly familiar and forgettable.

More of a missed opportunity than a misfire, then. School of Rock is a perfectly serviceable, enjoyable evening of theatre, and should be experienced for the performances and talented cast alone. Just don’t go in expecting, ironically, for it to rock your world.

Lloyd-Webber, Slater and Fellowes play it far too safe and familiar to ever really rock, but there’s enough fun to be had here, particularly in its awesome leads, and showcasing of the stage stars of tomorrow.

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