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REVIEW: Kids Rock Out in School of Rock (Orpheum/Hennepin Theatre Trust)

The cast of the national tour of School of Rock. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Andrew Lloyd Webber made much of his name and reputation with original – and now classic – rock operas like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Returning to the genre in 2013, however, Andrew Lloyd Webber surprisingly chose something quite different: to transform the less-than-spectacular, but appealingly high-grossing Jack Black movie School of Rock into a Broadway musical. The result opened on Broadway in 2015 and has been playing ever since, featuring music by ALW, lyrics by Glenn Slater, and a book by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. The touring version of this musical, directed by Lawrence Connor, is an unexpectedly entertaining and “kid adorable” show.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know the general story line for this musical. At the top of the show, down-and-out rocker Dewey Finn is sponging off his best friend. Desperate for money, Dewey impersonates his friend to work as a substitute teacher at Horace Green, a prestigious prep school. When he discovers that his elementary school students have some serious musical talent, he hatches a scheme to have his students form a rock band so that he can compete in a Battle of the Bands competition.

Hernando Umana and Rob Colletti in the School of Rock national tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

One of the show’s attractions is that the child actors are actually playing their instruments onstage, as a recorded voiceover by Lloyd Webber notes. The non-musician students take on the roles of manager, backup singers, roadies, groupies, stylist, etc.  The new group does all of its auditions, rehearsals, and preparations during the school day – right under the nose of an unsuspecting school principal.

The music of the show is a mixture of more traditional musical songs and some heavy metal tunes, with Dewey’s introductory songs reminiscent of Judas’ laments in ALW’s Jesus Christ Superstar. The show starts to really take off musically when Dewey arrives at the prep school and more traditional musical tunes such as “Here at Horace Green” are performed by the children and the faculty. Although I am personally not a fan of heavy metal, the rocker number of “Stick It to the Man” is definitely a show highlight.

Rob Colletti as Dewey succeeds in both generating a great deal of energy throughout the show and demonstrating Dewey’s transformation from a self-centered, not-so-great rocker to a caring individual who accepts that his real talent may be to foster talent in others. As school principal Rosalie Mullins, Lexie Dorsett Sharp does a credible job of playing the stereotypical principal consumed with following rules and pleasing parents. Sharp particularly shines in the hilarious scene where she lets her inner rocker emerge upon hearing the Stevie Nicks song “Edge of Seventeen”. Such are the adults.

Emily Borromeo, Rob Colletti, and Matt Bittner in the School of Rock tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The real stars of the show are all of the children.  These include Ava Briglia, who takes on the bossy role of Summer; John Michael Patel as the Barbra Streisand-loving fashionista Billy, Phoenix Schuman as guitarist/composer Zach, Gianna Harris as the painfully shy new girl with the incredible singing voice, Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton as the drummer Freddy, and Theodora Silverman as bass guitarist Shonell. These little scene stealers, especially Patel and Briglia, repeatedly light up the stage and create the show’s most delicious moments.

School of Rock plays at the Orpheum Theatre through Sunday, March 11.

Bev Wolfe