Theatre Review: Child Performers Lift Wobbly “School of Rock”

The adaptation of “School Rock” from film to stage is both inevitable and risky. With its clean plotting and song-filled infrastructure, the movie lends itself to the musical format better than most. But unlike some star-crossed entertainment properties—“Newsies,” we’re looking at you—“School of Rock” is a great and iconic film that needs little Broadway tinkering.

Now on tour at the Broward Center, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s turned-up-to-11 rock musical is not without its spunk, performed by an exceptional ensemble of child actors and a game cast of adults. But the movie’s subtle, effervescent charms and witty repartee—the result of seasoned auteurs Richard Linklater and Mike White, respectively—are largely missing onstage, where the strokes are as broad as the riffs are loud. Most of all, Jack Black’s absence lingers over the project like the remnant of a dream, his shoes remaining unfilled.

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The musical retains the major elements of the movie’s story, which finds washed-up rocker Dewey Finn (Rob Colletti)—kicked out of both his metal band and his bedroom, where he’s been freeloading off his now-domesticated best friend—impersonating a substitute teacher for a temporary job at an elite private elementary school. Discovering that music, albeit the classical kind, is part of the students’ curriculum, Dewey turns his classroom into a clandestine rock ‘n’ roll academy that lifts the kids’ self-esteem and provides Dewey with a backup group to compete in a local rock station’s Battle of the Bands.

Only in its stage incarnation are the story’s echoes of “The Music Man” so shopworn: Using rhythm and melody, a con artist seduces the residents of a tight-knit community—in this case, its children—while seeking the affections of its primmest resident, headmistress Rosalie Mullins (Lexie Dorsett Sharp, in what feels like a solid tryout for Marian Paroo). The exposing and subsequent redemption of its protagonist are as predictable as a guitar solo in a Rush song, and are bereft of genuine emotional connection.

The book, by “Downton Abbey”’s Julian Fellowes, is rote and yellowing, its pop-culture references (to fidget spinners and the Kardashians) instantly dated. From the script to the direction, women get the worst of it: The ladies of “School of Rock” are uptight, controlling shrews crimping the freedoms of their fun-loving men, a rotten stereotype that feels especially out of step in the feminist awakening of 2017. The kids’ self-righteous, wrongheaded parents are equally constructed of cardboard, propped up to be punched down and then reformed in a dutiful series of lazy applause lines.

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Two things salvage this wobbly property: the kids and the music, each inseparable from the other. Much has been made of the novelty that the child actors play their instruments onstage, but this aspect of the production cannot be overstated. Each performer is a quadruple threat, and they make glorious harmony together while deconstructing rock ‘n’ roll into its constituent parts.

Their work on tuneful, head-banging earworms like “You’re in the Band,” “Stick It to the Man” and the title song justify this show’s existence. Each of the actors has his or her moment, but special recognition is due Gianna Harris as the cripplingly shy Tomika, who slays her classmates with a soul-stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

Other numbers are more tepid. Webber’s compositions are strongest on the signature rock-powered songs, some modified from the movie, all of which are properly reprised. The more traditional Broadway numbers, like “Faculty Quadrille,” set in the teachers’ lounge, or Rosalie’s belty solo, “Where Did the Rock Go?,” feel like padding—which they are, of course. There is no earthly reason “School of Rock” should clock in at three hours, but I suppose that in a show about classic rock, a bit of indulgence is expected.

“The School of Rock” runs through Dec. 24 at Broward Center, 201 S.W. Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets start at $35.25. Call 954/462-0222 or visit browardcenter.org.