“School of Rock” Sports Heavy-Metal Vulgarity

Review:  School of Rock

By Perry Tannenbaum

Dewey Finn is not your model citizen. A wayward adherent to the religion of hard rock and heavy metal, Dewey is vastly self-absorbed. When he gets booted out of his No Vacancy band, presumably for stealing focus from the shirtless lead singer, Dewey sponges contentedly and thanklessly off former bandmate Ned Schneebly. Worse, when an opportunity opens for Ned as a substitute teacher at a prestigious private school, Dewey steals it.

Masquerading as Ned, Dewey remains true to his slovenly egocentric creed, arriving to his first day at work late and hung over. More alert on Day Two, he discards the normal schedule and curriculum, ditching math and social studies in favor of turning his students into a rock band. Dewey remains steadfast in his ambition to qualify for, compete in, and emerge victorious in the upcoming Battle of the Bands.

After heroes and antiheroes that included the biblical Joseph and Jesus, the Phantom of the Opera and Grizabella, Evita Peron and Norma Desmond, you could say that Dewey Finn shattered the mold for Andrew Lloyd Webber protagonists when School of Rock opened on Broadway in December 2015. Although it never became anything like the moneymaker Phantom still is after 30 years, Rock is still running – while subsequent revivals of Cats and Sunset Boulevard are not.

From what I could see at Ovens Auditorium on opening night, word-of-mouth in Charlotte will concur with the Broadway verdict.

What makes Dewey appealing is his sheer vulgarity, which nearly reaches full John Belushi proportions. But there’s more, mainly the unsavoriness of all the other adults onstage, beginning with the No Vancancies who let Dewey go. Ned is preternaturally wimpy, more dependent on his inhaler than a meth addict, and his girlfriend Patty is dominatrix-grade hostile.

At school, Dewey’s colleagues are suburban bland. At home, the students’ parents are variously unloving and/or unsupportive. The principal, Rosalie Mullins, is the essence of by-the-book rigor, believing that this is what those wealthy parents are paying for. Winning Rosalie over is the key to realizing Dewey’s hard rockin’ aspirations, and he hits upon the perfect scheme, asking her out to a local dive and plying her with cheap beer and Stevie Nicks.

Scenic and costume designs by Anna Louizos have the same look on tour as they had on Broadway – as far as Ovens will allow. When the School of Rock band finally gets their shot at the Battle of the Bands showdown, there’s no visible spot for the skeptical parent to sit – like, say, the box seats at Belk Theater? – while the kids prove themselves.

The size of cavernous Ovens, seating over 60% more than the Winter Garden on Broadway, makes it more difficult to hear Dewey’s fifth graders clearly – and more difficult for most ticketholders to see the mutually beneficial relationship developing between them. Really, I couldn’t find any distance between Rob Colletti’s disheveled charm on tour and Alex Brightman’s on Broadway, nor were the kids’ talents any less precocious than those I witnessed at the Winter Garden.

But the mojo that starts happening in the classroom with “You’re in the Band,” as Dewey matches students with their instruments (no, I don’t know how he snuck in a complete drum kit), seems comparatively muted and diluted in the vast Ovens space. Here’s where the kids get their first fix of that you’re-really-good intoxicant their sub is dishing out while Dewey gets his first inkling of how fulfilling it can be to do something for somebody else. On Broadway, this is where I knew that Lloyd Webber was onto something when he decided to adapt the 2003 film starring Jack Black. At Ovens, we’re still unsure.

We never tap in quite as intimately to Dewey’s growth and transformation. It hits us more at big moments that are outsized signposts along the way. Fortunately, there are enough of these broad advances in Julian Fellowes’ adaptation of Mike White’s screenplay to add up to a satisfying jolt when the big crises hit midway through Act 2. The essence of these advances is the beneficial effect he has on the kids, on Rosalie, and even Ned – a medical miracle, since the wimp suddenly tosses away his inhaler and become a mean rockin’ machine – along with new outbreaks of generosity, tact and caring.

Colletti carries the show on his broad sloping shoulders, his big belly, and purest chutzpah, but it’s the kids who give the show its impish, wholesome Monkees energy. Dynamic Phoenix Schuman on guitar, nerdy Theo Mitchell-Penner on keyboard, grumpy Theodora Silverman on bass, and hipster Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton on drums are a cornucopia of musical precocity. The mini character roles have the same Broadway excellence, bossy little Ava Briglia emerging as company manager, effeminate John Mitchell Pitera finding his passion in costume design, and withdrawn Gianna Harris breaking out of her cocoon with a smashing a cappella “Amazing Grace.”

There’s a latent sexiness to Lexie Dorsett Sharp as Rosalie that peeps through early on when she exits Dewey’s classroom after a precise and military left-face. Our principal also displays a formidable soprano in “Queen of the Night” excerpts, though the highest note in the Magic Flute aria is always scaled with the aid of a student tapping a triangle. There’s a certain British delicacy in the way Sharp eventually melts, removing her glasses but never letting her hair down.

Director Laurence Connor allows more latitude to Dewey’s put-upon hosts with only middling results. Patti is a fairly standard-issue shrew, and Emily Borromeo does little to transcend her, pitch-perfectly annoying in her yammering. Matt Bittner, so hopelessly asthmatic early on, does deliver a shocking metamorphosis when he grows a pair. Maybe he could survive in a classroom!

There are no memorable power ballads from Lloyd Webber this time around, but he’s clearly having fun, stealing from Mozart and Deep Purple in the same score – and proving, in case you’ve forgotten, that he really can rock. “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock” cooks at medium heat to start things off, and later, “Stick It to the Man” and “You’re in the Band” actually achieve a slight metallic edge.

Implausibly, the climactic title tune misfires. Lloyd Weber’s melody, perhaps to satisfy demands of the plot that don’t need satisfying, doesn’t reach the anthemic stature we’d expect from a revelatory rock band’s signature tune. Glenn Slater’s lyrics, reliable throughout the evening, are dreadful here, incoherent and not at all believably from a fifth grader’s imagination.

Not to worry, Weber hasn’t lost it at the end. Order is restored when he reprises the crowd’s favorite, “Stick It to the Man.”

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