Sunday, January 21, 2018
Stage

Andrew Lloyd Webber lets his freak flag fly with ‘School of Rock’ at Straz

TAMPA

From Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most recent musical, we may conclude several things.

School of Rock was a pretty good movie. The 2003 movie written by Mike White, on which this 2015 adaptation is based, came with an exuberant plot, a solid chassis around which to redesign a car. The touring show, which has come to the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, also completes an across-the-pond marriage between an American film and a British musical, which might contain clues.

Maybe Lord Lloyd-Webber and Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, who wrote the book, were intrigued by the opportunity to tweak an aristocratic system that closely mirrors their own, in this case an upper crust private school full of emotionally neglected kids.

Or maybe the most compelling conclusion is just that kids sure are cute. These young performers are no exception, but it’s their talent that anchors the show. One feature clings to School of Rock like wallpaper, namely that it echoes other works about unconventional, inspiring teachers. It’s most often compared with Matilda, which also centered on a private school that stifled creativity.

Less literal similarities might lie even closer to the heart, such as the teacher portrayed by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, who also took flak from parents for encouraging rebellion for art’s sake.

While audiences will likely remember those works longer than they do this one, Rock is still a substantial, albeit formulaic, show that knows what it wants to accomplish. With lyrics by Glenn Slater, Webber’s score builds strategically, checking off boxes through 28 numbers and pausing to emphasize and drink in key plot points. The story line centering on guitars and drums and all of the elements that go into putting on a rock concert automatically makes those moments more dramatic and fun, especially since this production falls to highly capable hands all round.

The story begins with a crisis. Dewey, an aspiring rock-‘n’-roller, has been living for his art at the expense of his best buddy, who is not getting Dewey’s rent money, and bandmates who think Dewey doesn’t look like a rock star and that he showboats too much. On the verge of eviction and kicked out of his band, he fraudulently lands a position as a long-term substitute, teaching fifth-graders at the Horace Green school.

Dewey is a committed slacker, or was until he heard his students playing Mozart in music practice. He rushes to turn them into a rock band, finding roles for nearly all of them with a goal of competing for prize money against his former band. The students themselves are easy; this is the first time anyone has asked their wants and needs, what makes them angry and even what they don’t like about him.

The uptight principal, Rosalie, is a tougher test.

Most of us have seen this movie (or opera) before too: Opposites attract, especially when it comes to prim and rule-bound women falling for bad boys. This time the formula works, in part due to the competence of Rob Colletti as a lovable misfit and Lexie Dorsett Sharp as the lonely disciplinarian who secretly thrills to the music of Stevie Nicks. Each holds down a defining passage or two, Colletti with the rousing You’re in the Band with students and Sharp in the sadly nostalgic Where Did the Rock Go? The song about the imprint of rock music on the young — every note and lyric branded right across my soul — is all she has to nail this side of Rosalie, and it’s all Sharp needs.

Colletti is wise not to try to replicate Jack Black’s hyper-manic Dewey of the film, keeping his pulse to a mere 150 or so. His synergy with the fine young musicians and dancers on stage (guitarist Phoenix Schuman and Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton on the drums are particularly impressive) fuels the zeitgeist in the show and on the stage. With these kinds of performances, if Webber et al are putting kids in front of audiences and daring us not to be touched and impressed by them, I’m busted. Their charm is irresistible, as is the allure of this musical.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow
@torch437.

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