Fans of the movie will be pleased to know that this musical version is a pretty faithful adaptation which stays true to the original not only in terms of story but also to Jack Black’s performance as Dewey Finn. For new readers, Dewey Finn is a failed wanna-be rock musician who finds his way into the role of substitute teacher at a New York private school. Here he discovers his class of young students actually have musical talent which he decides to nurture into a rock band, while ignoring subjects on the curriculum that aren’t rock related – meaning all of them!
Music is by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who has clearly used his own early works (notably Jesus Christ Superstar and, I think, Variations) as an influence on this score. We had perhaps forgotten that Lloyd Webber has a rock pedigree, having invented the rock opera as a musical theatre form along with Tim Rice in the 1970s. Here he is on fine form with catchy and powerful numbers like You’re in the Band, Stick it to the Man and Time to Play. We also get the title number from the film, written not by Lloyd Webber but Sammy James Jr. and the film’s screenwriter Mike White. Other numbers are less successful. Yes they move the story forward and effectively introduce both characters and the school the children attend. But they don’t really set pulses racing or deliver any standout moments, which begins to be a concern during the early part of the show.
The book is by Julian Fellowes, a world away from Downton Abbey. He claims in the programme to have given us more back story on each child in the band. I’m not sure his scene with several of the children confronting their parents at home with the ‘rock homework’ delivers the goods as effectively as the original film. In that, such insights are shown in the classroom as the reticent and up-tight pupils discover their true selves whilst they gradually open-up to the emotional power of the rock music being introduced to them by Dewey Finn. In this stage musical that journey takes place in the course of a single number, so the children go from Hogwarts to School of Rock in five minutes, which leaves plot and character development with less to do in the remainder of the show. This means much sense of dramatic tension about the ability or willingness of the children to become a rock band is missing. We go straight from them not being a band, to being a band – so we can see pretty much the rest of the plot from this point on, which is quite early in act one.
Jake Sharp as Dewey Finn has enough energy to power every light on the set. It’s almost a one-man show. Finn’s enthusiasm has to be supremely contagious, and Sharp absolutely makes sure it is. He drives the show along and this, combined with the bouncy commitment of the children in his class, soon wins you over and carries you along through any of the less thrilling musical moments. It really is a tour de force. His relationship with head teacher Miss Mullins has added depth thanks to Rebecca Lock’s strong vocals and a great number she gets to herself revealing her own history with rock music (Where did the Rock Go?).
The children are also great. They sing and move with joy and gusto, while some display prodigious talent on guitar, keyboard and drums. We have come to expect children in musicals to be amazing, with a number of shows over the years, like this one, really relying for their success on their young performers. For instance Matilda, Annie, and Oliver! But this large group (twelve of them) really bring the theatre alive with their energy and commitment, backed-up by what the programme calls the ‘grown up band’ – who do a terrific job, whilst allowing themselves to be overshadowed by the on-stage talent.
A word, too, about the set which is satisfyingly grand and moves about swiftly and slickly to effect the scene changes.
School of Rock is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 28 May 2022 and then continues on tour.