Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

School of Rock - The Musical
National Tour
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Candide


Rob Colletti and Phoenix Schuman
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Walking out of the touring production of School of Rock - The Musical, a high decibel entertainment bonanza spending this week in Minneapolis, my first thought was "what an amazing job by casting director Merri Sugarman." If you are familiar with the smash 2003 movie on which the show is based, you know that it featured a hopelessly immature wannabe rock star, played by Jack Black in an iconic performance, who fraudulently takes a job as a substitute teacher for a snooty private elementary school and transforms his repressed, high-strung students into mind-blowing rock musicians. There's where Ms. Sugarman faced her challenge: casting that troupe of seventeen youngsters aged 9 - 12 who are incredible quadruple threat performers: singing, acting, dancing and playing awesome rock and roll. Her success is remarkable, all the more so considering that those chosen ones will age out of their roles quickly. In fact, I read an item on Playbill.com earlier today announcing new young cast members for the tour taking over several key roles next week. Based on the talent at the Orpheum right now, they have a hard act to follow. For a casting agent, I suppose School of Rock is job security.

For everyone else, School of Rock offers a wonderful time at the theater, with a story that for all its jagged electric guitar chords and rock posturing is good hearted to the core, with a laugh-a-minute book by Julian Fellowes (who expected that from the scribe of such genteel realms as "Downton Abbey" and Gosford Park?) and a thoroughly engaging score, borrowing several songs from the movie, with additional tunes by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Glen Slater.

This is not sirloin steak Lloyd Webber, more like ground chuck—but, like a good ground chuck, it can transform into a deliciously satisfying burger. A sweet song in which the students express their feelings of isolation from their status-seeking parents, "If Only You Would Listen," effectively conveys the inner lives of these kids and the reason their chance to break out as rock musicians feels so affirming. Later, Dewey leads his disciples in the rock anthem "Stick It to the Man," in which he explains that you have to be angry at "the Man" to be a bona-fide rocker. Neither these, nor the other Lloyd Webber contributions, will likely be remembered in their own right, but they serve the narrative and the tone of School of Rock very nicely indeed.

But what really pulls the show together are the performances. In addition to the wunderkind children, Rob Colletti gives a knock-em-dead performance as Dewey Finn. He inhabits the very core of Dewey's stunted man-child, unphased by his inability to shoulder responsibility, consumed by delusions of rock stardom, and fueling his music with defused, angry energy aimed at "the Man." He is childish and shiftless, yet totally likable. Colletti's large bulk does not prevent him from throwing himself about the stage like a wind-up toy gone berserk, moving with a surprising grace and agility that brought to my mind the great Jackie Gleason (an accolade which probably means nothing to his young castmates).

Lexie Dorsett Sharp is the leading lady, playing Rosalie, the straight-laced principal at Horace Green Academy who serves as Dewey Finn's primary nemesis. The script does allow Sharp to deliver some comedic lines, droll and biting though they be, and she has one great musical number, "Where Did the Rock Go?" Sharp does a splendid job playing the part, shedding light on the principal's discomfort in her own skin, and serving as an obliging straight man to Colletti's non-stop clowning.

The other two major adult roles are played by Matt Bittner as Ned, Dewey's friend since childhood who has allowed Dewey mooch off him for years, and Emily Borromeo as Patty, Ned's girlfriend who aggressively pushes Ned to throw Dewey off the couch and out of their apartment. Bittner is a bit too much the nebbish in the beginning—one couldn't imagine Patty having in interest in such a weak-willed man, and there is too much focus on his use of a nebulizer—but he comes into his own in the second act. Borromeo does well as a woman whose arguments are perfectly logical, but who delivers them with such a shrill tone that she becomes the bad guy. The rest of the adult cast members do double and triple duty as teachers, students' parents, and the musicians who, at the top of the show, throw Dewey out of their band. They all are fine in their rather indistinct roles.

But what really captures us are those young superstars, who not only deliver the required skills of singing, especially Gianna Harris as a soul singer keeping her light under a bushel, dancing, and playing their instruments like they just walked off the Grammy Award show—remember the name of guitar wizard Phoenix Schuman—but they each create unique, whole characters, kids with distinct feelings who work their way into our hearts. Their immense energy is put to good use by choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter, with a lot of dance numbers that involve repeated jumping about, propelling their high spirits into the air.

Director Laurence Connor has brought the performances, music, and sharp book together into a seamless whole. Anna Louizos designed a highly functional set, with panels that turn from side to side to quickly change from the school assembly hall to Dewey's classroom, to the faculty lounge, and to various wood-paneled corridors. In fact, in one very clever scene, Dewey, on his first day, is being led by the principal down one corridor after another, the panels moving about to convey the labyrinthine feel of an old-guard school building. Louizos also designed the completely apt costumes. Natasha Katz's lighting design and Mick Potter's sound design especially go full throttle to create rock-concert atmospheres, with a huge burst at the close, like the finale of a Fourth of July fireworks show. The pit band does a swell job of turning out all the music not played by the young rockers on stage.

As far as School of Rock's suitability as entertainment for children, the show does include one four-letter word and the frequent use of the word "damn," and Dewey confesses to his students in one scene to having a hangover. But there is no reference at all to drug use and no sex. I would guess that for most kids age eight or older, the show would not expose them to anything they don't come across in their lives. I also would guess that they would have a blast seeing it.

There has been a parade of musicals based on hit movies over the past fifteen years, more often than not proving to be bad ideas in the execution. Still, there are enough victories among them to keep the trend afloat, and School of Rock ranks among those success stories. Dewey Finn's juvenile posturing a la Gene Simmons, in the flesh, is more entertaining than it was on the screen, and the exuberance of the rock and rolling kids jets over the audience like helium released from balloons. We are raised aloft, not only by the joy of laughing, and the strong marriage of music to the storyline, but by the good will that fills the theater in witnessing these amazingly talented kids—our future—performing like pros (which they are) and giving us reason to feel hopeful about the prospects that await us after the curtain descends.

School of Rock - The Musical, through March 11, 2018, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $39.00 - $145.00. For information and tickets call 800-982-2787 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit https://ustour.schoolofrockthemusical.com.

Book: Julian Fellowes, based on the Paramount movie written by Mike White; Lyrics: Glen Slater; New Music and Orchestrations: Andrew Lloyd Webber; Director: Laurence Connor; Choreographer: JoAnn M. Hunter; Scenic and Costume Design: Anna Louizos; Lighting Design: Natasha Katz; Sound Design: Mick Potter; Hair Design: Josh Marquette; Music Supervisor: John Rigby; Music Coordinator: Talitha Fehr; Music Director: Martyn Axe; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Merri Sugarman; CSA; Production Stage Manager: Larry Smiglewski; Associate Director: David Ruttura; Associate Choreographer: Patrick O'Neil.

Cast: Matt Bittner (Ned), Ava Briglia (Summer), Emily Borromeo (Patty), Olivia Bucknor (Shonelle), Patrick Clanton (Gabe Brown/Mr. Hamilton/Jeff Sanderson), Rob Colletti (Dewey), Melanie Evans (Security Guard #2), Liam Fennecken (Bob/Mr. Sandford/Cop), Chloe Anne Garcia (Marcy), Gianna Harris (Tomika), Carson Hodges (Mason), Merritt David Janes (Dewey, at certain performances), Elysia Jordan (Mrs. Hathaway), Deidre Lang (Ms. Sheinkopf/Security Guard #1), Sinclair Mitchell (Snake/Mr. Mooneyham), Theo Mitchell-Penner (Lawrence), Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton (Freddy), Jameson Moss (Stanley/Mr. Williams), John Michael Pitera (Billy), Tommy Ragen (James), Phoenix Schuman (Zach), Lexie Dorsett Sharp (Rosalie), Tim Shea (Doug/Mr. Spencer), Theodora Silverman (Katie), Gabriella Uhl (Sophie), Hernando Umana (Theo).

Ensemble: John Campione, Patrick Clanton, Christopher DeAngelis, Kristian Espiritu, Melanie Evans, Liam Fennecken, Kara Haller, Elysia Jordan, Sinclair Mitchell, Jameson Moss, Tim Shea and Hernando Umana.


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