Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 w. Randolph St.
When: through Nov. 19
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Take away the talented, incredibly cute kids, and “School of Rock—The Musical” is little more than a preposterous story about an obnoxious would-be rock star with an upbeat message designed to push your emotional buttons. The touring production currently at the Cadillac Palace Theatre benefits from some strong performances, but that doesn’t rescue the show from its slew of cartoon characters, formulaic scenes, and mostly unremarkable pop-rock numbers.
Based of the very popular 2003 film starring Jack Black (I admit I didn’t see it), ‘School of Rock” showcases songs from the movie plus new music by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Glenn Slater and a book by Jullian Fellowes (of “Downton Abbey” fame). It opens with guitarist Dewey Finn (Rob Colletti, replaced at some performances by Merritt David Janes) playing “I’m Too Hot for You” with his band, No Vacancy, at a club, but the other band members fire him almost immediately for trying to upstage the lead singer. If you’re not familiar with the story, it takes a few minutes to figure out what’s going on and why.
The next morning, Dewey is awoken by his long-time friend and former band mate, Ned Schneebly (Matt Bittner), and Ned’s girlfriend, shrewish Patty Di Marco (Emily Borromeo). He’s been living in a bedroom in their apartment, and Patty is demanding the rent while Ned, a fairly straight-laced substitute teacher, sort of shrinks in embarrassment. After they leave, Dewey fantasizes about getting a big break and becoming a superstar. Then he answers a phone call from Rosalie Mullins (Lexie Dorsett Sharp), principal of the prestigious Horace Green School, and, pretending to be Ned, accepts a substitute teacher position that pays $900+ a week—more than enough to pay his rent.
Of course, Dewey doesn’t have a clue how to be a teacher, so the scenes that follow involve him doing wildly inappropriate things like declaring immediate recess, sending a kid out to buy him food, and alternately insulting and ignoring these 5th graders. They hate him for it, and teacher’s pet Summer (Ava Briglia) is most vocal, especially after he rips up a chart showing her stars for achievement.
Everything changes as soon as Dewey overhears the children’s classical music class and realizes he can hijack their talents to shape them into a rock band to enter—and hopefully win—the Battle of the Bands at the club, something he sees as his ticket to success and tells them is theirs to Harvard. The kids don’t know anything about rock (which seems very odd), but they’re game. Dewey assigns each of them a part—instrumentalists, singers, roadies, etc.–and, predictably, they blossom, overcoming problems like shyness and lack of self-confidence apparently caused by their parents’ neglect and lack of understanding. He, in turn, admires their “awesome” musical talent and grows to love them. In other words, he gets a second chance and is redeemed by his ability to finally put others before himself.
Unfortunately, I found Colletti so convincing as the slovenly, self-absorbed, totally narcissistic Dewey that I was too turned off to appreciate his conversion, which I guess means his acting was excellent. The other teachers and parents were caricatures drawn with a few swift strokes, even Sharp’s stiff-necked, authoritarian Rosalie, a secret rock lover with an operatic voice she gets to show off in an excerpt from Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria. Bittner’s Ned was comparatively understated; Borromeo’s domineering Patty, overblown.
Then, there are the kids, who not only play their own music—we’re assured by an opening announcement—but also craft distinctive, endearing characters, starting with Briglia’s bossy, resourceful Summer, who is tapped as band manager. Standouts for me were Gilberto Morretti-Hamilton as rambunctious Freddy on drums and Theodora Silverman as deadpan bass player Katie (with bobbing pigtails), but kudos also go to Phoenix Schuman as guitarist Zack, who proves to be a musical prodigy, Theo Mitchell-Penner as gluten-intolerant Lawrence, who thinks he’s not cool enough to be in a band, and Gianna Harris as Tomika, who’s too shy to even speak until Dewey encourages her to let loose with the powerhouse voice of a lead singer. Their numbers include “You’re in the Band,” “In the End of Time,” and the oft-reprised anthem, “Stick It to the Man.”
Director Laurence Connor keeps the action moving fairly smoothly, and Anna Louizos’ scenic design allows for quick shifts from club to classroom, not to mention faculty lounge and Dewey’s bedroom, JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography belongs to the pogo stick school, in other words, the kids do an awful lot of jumping up and down. But they are the main attraction here and ultimately can do no wrong.