How good might School of Rock have been had Andrew Lloyd Webber not bought the stage rights to the film? The 2003 movie had a cute enough premise, but converting it to a musical required someone who could hammer out more convincing songs than the flaky slate that Lloyd Webber passes off as rock. Then there’s the even worse crime that he’s spent a career committing: his trademark musical equivalent of treacle, which finally erupts from his show’s pores in Rosalie’s frightful Where Did the Rock Go? I’ll tell you where it went. It rolled away in fright when Lloyd Webber sat at the piano.
Had, say, a Nick Cave or a David Byrne penned the music, this would not be such a conflicted review, because several of the performances are immensely engaging – as is the story, except for the fact that it takes 30 minutes to come to life. Surely the set-up could have been condensed, or even presented as back-story, because it is only when Dewey Finn (Brent Hill) unleashes the rock animal lurking in each member of his class of fifth-graders that one begins to settle in for the narrative ride. Until then the show keeps stalling, mired in its own predictability.
Rock-obsessed Dewey, faking being a teacher in order to earn a buck after being dumped by his band, is elated to learn his class contains some musical talent. What happens next is entirely dependent on the performers, because the children have to be able to deliver as musicians in order to connect the show’s emotional dots. Being adequate doesn’t cut it: the story demands that they be exceptional. In this regard plaudits go to Zane Blumeris (as Zack, the guitarist), who is such a precociously gifted player that you actually hang out for his next chance to shine.
Also making the pulse race are Cherami Mya Remulta as bassist Katie, and Jude Hyland as keyboards player Lawrence. The rest of the children mainly tick the “adequate” box, with Sabina Felias not having the explosive voice needed if Tomika, the class’s erstwhile silent girl, is suddenly to reveal herself a star.
The lead part of Dewey is so big that, just as the children’s roles are shared during the season, Hill also shares Dewey. His opening night performance would be a hard act to improve upon: an energetic whirl of dorkiness, zaniness and comedy, while, crucially, making the character sympathetic. Amy Lehpamer was an entirely worthy foil as the prim school principal, Rosalie, with John O’Hara (Ned) and Nadia Komazec (Ned’s insufferable wife) fleshing out the leads.
Glenn Slater’s lyrics and especially Julian Fellowes’ book outstrip Lloyd Webber’s music, and even better is Laurence Connor’s direction, which deftly handles the almost constant presence of a sizeable cast, maximises the available humour and milks the thrills as the kids strut their stuff.
Anna Louizos’ design sustained a vital fluidity between scenes in a show that’s looking for any excuse to stall. When the children themselves weren’t playing, the music was handled by a solid band (under Laura Tipoki) that included such eminent locals as guitarist Rex Goh and drummer Warren Trout.
Hill’s Dewey is such an entertaining protagonist that you wish you’d had him as a teacher in primary school yourself, although the show ultimately rises and falls on the kids, and it is for children that it will hold the greatest appeal. They can happily clap along – while the adults grind teeth to ALW’s melodies.
School of Rock is playing at the Capitol Theatre until February 16.