Datline- It’s a double-dose of Andrew Lloyd Webber at Dallas Summer Musicals. On the heels of Love Never Dies comes the season closer School of Rock, presented at the Music Hall at Fair Park through Aug. 26 (it then goes to Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall Aug. 28-Sept. 2). Based on the 2003 film written by Mike White and starring Jack Black, this production features new music by Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater, and book by Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame). Laurence Connor directs, and JoAnn M. Hunter provides choreography. Musical director Martyn Axe conducts a live rock band during the performance.
The story stays mostly on track with the film, with a small but relevant character development detour. Freeloader Dewey Finn (Rob Colletti) finds himself short on rent money (again), and his one hope at garnering some cash fails when he’s kicked out of his band, as they prepare for Battle of the Bands and the tempting cash prize. His ever-forgiving friend Ned (former Dallas actor John Campione) starts putting on the pressure at the urging of his domineering girlfriend Patty (Emily Borromeo), and Dewey ends up impersonating Ned as a substitute teacher at a distinguished private school.
Since Dewey takes a lackadaisical approach to anything but his music, fooling those involved, especially principal Rosalie Mullins (Lexie Dorsett Sharp) takes some creative thinking. He finds a way to make the job fun when he discovers the students’ musical talents. Tradition-smashing rock n’ roll provides a way to give the kids a different kind of education while supplying him another chance at Battle of the Bands.
Webber and team deliver solid tunes to keep the audience rockin’ all throughout the show. Catchy melodies and upbeat tempos maintain the show’s high energy, with “Stick It to the Man” and “School of Rock” remaining in one’s head long after the curtain falls. “If Only You Would Listen” and “Where Did the Rock Go?” punctuate the serious moments without pulling the vigor down.
Because this is a story about rock music, finding a comfortable balance between the instruments and vocals gets a little dicey at times. To compensate for the amplified instruments, performers sometimes have to scream the unintelligible lyrics, and at times, Colletti’s screeching turns irksome. It’s a loud show, to be sure, but with those few exceptions, music balance is pretty decent.
Creative set design by Anna Louizos seamlessly allows for environment changes, with a nice attention to detail in both an obsessed rocker’s bedroom and the meticulous prep school. Choreography proves interesting, due to the music. Traditional musical theater steps are rightfully nowhere to be found, and Hunter’s use of more pedestrian movements results in quite a bit of jump-ography.
One major downside occurs with the overuse of stereotypes and extremes. While the cartoonish characters and delivery conjure loads of laughs throughout, it grows wearisome, even though the story progresses at a satisfying rate. Images and language surrounding weight, intelligence, sexuality, and other traits wear thin. The contrast of rock ’n’ roll against a rule-driven, militaristic school and the clichéd out-of-touch parents proves a point, but there comes a time when it’s beaten to death. Even the image of rock music as solely a rebellious art without any other purpose gets old.
That aside, a brilliantly skilled cast makes this show absolutely worth seeing. All performers, including the kids, play their own instruments, in addition to singing and acting superbly. Colletti attacks Dewey Finn with gusto, and Sharp deftly navigates the balance of being an uptight principal with an inner rocker. Her gritty “Where Did the Rock Go” is one of the shining moments.
The kids absolutely leave me speechless and staring in disbelief. Is Molden really shredding the electric guitar that quickly and articulately? Did stone-faced rocker Bingham actually pluck the bass strings and slide her fingers around that effortlessly? Can Moretti-Hamilton indeed maneuver the drumsticks so gracefully across the set? Are those Mitchell-Penner’s hands pounding the keyboard with such speed and skill?
All answers are a resounding yes, and it’s a remarkable sight that keeps the audience cheering until they’re on their feet at the finale. What’s even better than the kids’ individual instrument talents is their connection as a vocal ensemble.
The subject of kids brings up an issue of age-appropriateness. Even though the show has multiple children and takes place in a primary school, it might not be as family-friendly as some might think. The entire plot centers on an unorthodox teacher inviting a seemingly rebellious element into the lives of schoolchildren, so naturally, mild cursing, disrespectful language, and normalization of disobedience frequently occur. While the story provides heartfelt lessons on differences, acceptance, and open-mindedness, parents who might be concerned about the aforementioned elements should take note if they’re considering this for younger children.
Running about two-and-a-half hours with intermission, the performance ends the summer and the DSM season on a satisfying, guitar-wailing note.