At the beginning of The School of Rock, currently on tour in the U.S., an announcer tells the audience that all the kids they’re about to see are playing their own instruments. This sense of empowerment of youth is key both to the enjoyment of the musical and to its story. When the students play in the Battle of the Bands at the show’s climax, the audience’s chant of “School of Rock” drowns out the fake one from the fictional audience pumped through the speakers.
Based on the 2003 Richard Linklater film of the same name, the 2016 Tony-nominated and 2017 WhatsOnStage-winning musical has been touring the last year with Merritt David Janes taking over for Rob Colleti in the lead role of Dewey Finn, made famous by Jack Black on film and Alex Brightman on Broadway. Janes brings unique experience to his performance, as he actually studied to become a music teacher at the University of Maine before a theater career that’s included touring roles in The Wedding Singer, Sweeney Todd and Beauty and the Beast. In School of Rock, Finn poses as a substitute teacher who enlists his students to help him fulfill his dream of winning the Battle of the Bands.
Of course, it’s the kids who steal the show, though, especially Sami Bray as the precocious band manager Summer, along with band members Katie (Leanne Parks on bass), Freddy (Cameron Trueblood on drums), Zack (Mystic Inscho on guitar) and singer Tamika (Grier Burke).
While the film mined the classic-rock cannon of the 1960s and ’70s, the musical features original music by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Glenn Slater. It’s a mixed bag as far as rock musicals go, but a few songs, “You’re in the Band,” “If Only You Would Listen” and “Stick It to the Man” are standouts. The latter, in particular, ranks among Lloyd Webber’s greats, a rebel anthem that will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater and anytime “the world has screwed you.” There’s even a little inside joke when Summer botches Lloyd Webber’s “Memory” in her audition, which ironically originated in the film before Lloyd Webber purchased the rights to the stage musical.
The show follows the movie pretty closely: Dewey steals his best friend Ned Schneebly’s identity to get a well-paying substitute teaching gig to pay rent after getting kicked out of his band and losing his job. With no intention of actually teaching anything, Dewey uses classtime to start a band with the kids, becoming an unlikely positive influence in their lives—at least those of the key band members; I can’t speak for the roadies and security detail—and the life of principal Rosalie Mullins (Lexie Dorsett Sharp). It’s an enjoyable celebration of the spirit of rock ’n’ roll with enough laughs and adorable moments from child actors to keep its momentum from lagging.
I saw School of Rock at its Atlanta stop last night, but the show continues across the U.S. through 2019. You can find all the dates here.