Chicago Theatre Review
You’re in the Band
School of Rock – Broadway in Chicago
In 2003, and for many years thereafter, “School of Rock,” starring Jack Black and a classroom of musically talented kids, was the most popular, highest grossing comedy film of all time (until “Pitch Perfect 2,” two years ago). The movie came to the attention of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Soon thereafter the iconic British composer acquired theatre rights and work began on Webber’s newest musical. Julian Fellowes, known for writing such popular television series as “Downton Abbey,” the script for the Oscar-winning film, “Gosford Park,” as well as the libretto for the theatrical musical “Mary Poppins,” was asked to adapt Mike White’s cinematic screenplay. Webber, best known for his soaring, romantic scores for such theatrical classics as “Phantom of the Opera” and “Evita,” returns here to his earlier roots, so prominent in rock musicals like “Jesus Christ Superstar.” This time around, Webber worked with his “Love Never Dies” lyricist, Glenn Slater (“Sister Act,” “The Little Mermaid”), developing a fleshed-out score for the theatrical treatment that also featured several of the rock songs from the film.
When the musical opened in 2015 at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre, it was received with great anticipation by those who loved the movie, and with positive to mixed critical reviews by the press. One writer called the show “‘The Sound of Music,’ but without the Nazis.” The aspects that worked so well on film are emphasized in the stage version. The often heartbreaking backstories of the lovable fifth graders at prestigious Horace Green Prep School take precedence over other plot lines. The details behind Dewey Finn’s wants and needs as a struggling rockstar take a back seat. We still enjoy discovering what makes uptight school principal, Rosalie Mullins, tick; and we also learn a little about Dewey’s landlord/housemates, nerdy substitute teacher, Ned Schneebly, and his domineering girlfriend, Patty. But what makes this musical work is the young cast of a dozen talented new quadruple-threat actors and their characters’ relationship to their new teacher.
For those unfamiliar with the story, briefly this musical is about a down-on-his-luck wannabe rockstar named Dewey Finn. He’s been renting a room from substitute teacher Ned Schneebly and his girlfriend Patty. But without a steady income, nor any inclination to find a job, after being fired from his band, Dewey has turned into a freeloader in danger of losing his home.
One morning, after a quarrel over back rent, Dewey decides to impersonate his substitute teacher housemate and accept a job offer at an elementary school. Pretending to be “Mr. Schneebly,” Dewey at first finds his class to be filled with boring little snobs. When he learns that music is also a small part of their curriculum, Dewey comes up with the idea to form a rock band with his talented, fifth-grade prodigies.
Since Dewey has no teaching certification, and the exclusive school would never allow its students to be creative or have fun, he has to secretly expose the kids to rock and roll. Dewey thinks it would great, both for the children and himself, to organize a kids’ group for the upcoming Battle of the Bands. He first transfers his students’ classical musical talents into mastering rock band instruments. Next, Dewey teaches his kids the classics of rock music. Then he motivates three young ladies to form a backup group of vocalists/dancers; he allows one of his more creative little boys to become the group’s stylist; finally Dewey appoints a young security officer, a technical director, a couple of roadies and, drawing upon the organizational talents of one youngster, gives the girl her dream job of being the group’s manager. Dewey even draws out the astounding singing talent of one very shy little girl, making her the star of their School of Rock.
Under the experienced and talented guidance by British director Laurence Connor, this production moves along smoothly, with heartwarming harmony and plenty of pulsating, toe-tapping rhythm. Martyn Axe keeps everyone on pitch and in sync with his fine musical direction and pit orchestra leadership; and Broadway choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter has created dances sporting all the right moves to help tell the story with appropriate joy. Glenn Slater’s lyrics are witty and bright. But, with a couple exceptions, Webber’s music isn’t as memorable as the scores of his previous hit musicals; however, ear worms, “You’re in the Band” and the infectious “Stick It to the Man” are difficult to forget. Rosalie’s soul-searching Act II ballad, “Where Did the Rock Go?” is another terrific song that would make a fine, surprise audition piece for a middle-aged actress.
The cast is led by Broadway’s Rob Colletti in the role of Dewey Finn. He’s cut his teeth in shows like “The Book of Mormon,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and has also been seen in Chicago at Second City and ATC’s Jeff Award-winning “The Original Grease.” He portrays a slightly gentler, more sensitive and empathetic character than Jack Black’s original. Lexie Dorsett Sharp makes a strict, no-nonsense Rosalie, whose 11th hour transformation comes as a pleasant, if sudden, surprise. Matt Bittner portays Ned with an earnest concern for both his longtime friend and his enervating live-in girlfriend, Patty (played with emasculating fervor by Emily Borromeo). The adult ensemble ably share the roles of the other teachers at Horace Green, as well as the children’s parents.
The students who become members of the School of Rock Band are all excellent, and this is where the heart of this production dwells. Perfectionist and brown-nosing Summer is magnificent, as portrayed by young Broadway veteran, Ava Briglia; as Tomika, the shy little girl with the great big voice, Gianna Harris is wonderful and heartbreaking. Little Theodora Silverman is perfect as the deadpan bass player, Katie; backup vocalists/dancers Shonelle and Marcy are played with moxie and musical talent by Olivia Bucknor and, especially, Chloe Anne Garcia.
Little Zack, the talented guitar-playing, music-composing son of an uptight father, is sweetly played by Phoenix Shuman. Master keyboardist and social underdog Lawrence is portrayed with shy sensibility by Theo Mitchell-Penner. Freddy, the little boy who once only played the cymbals, transforms into the Band’s gifted drummer. Here, he’s created by brilliant young percussionist Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton. Played with flair, attitude and festive confidence, John Michael Pitera is a delightful as fashionista Billy. As Mason, James and Sophie young Thespians Carson Hodges, Tommy Ragen, Gabriella Uhl, who are also the understudies for other roles, are first-rate.
While this musical won’t go down in theatrical history as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s best, it’s bound to find its way into educational, community and regional theatres across the nation. It’s heartfelt message about learning to be oneself, not forcing others to be something they aren’t and discovering the simple joy to be found in the arts makes this a show worth experiencing. Audiences will be lining up with their children to drink in the joy, inspiration and opportunity in discovering, You’re in the Band!
Reviewed by Colin Douglas