Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Also see Patrick's review of Soft Power
School of Rockis based on the 2003 movie of the same name, which starred Jack Black as a failed, penniless musician who crashes at a friend's house, then assumes the friend's identity in order to score a substitute teaching job at a tony prep school, where he turns a bunch of nerds into a rock bandwith the message being that rock 'n' roll is the best way to express yourself and, in the words of one of the show's best songs, to "stick it to the Man."
The musical follows the plot of the film relatively closely, but the slacker charm Jack Black exhibited as Dewey Finn becomes a tedious, egocentric, selfish disregard for the needs of others when the character can sing of his musical pipe dreams, as in "When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock." Dewey Finn is one of the most unlikable characters (who isn't a villain) ever to grace the stage in a musical. He stiffs his friends for the rent he owes them, alienates his band mates until they give him the boot, then lies his way into a job for which he is supremely unqualified. When he discovers the kids he has been hired to teach can play music (classical), he dragoons them into forming a group (for which, ego ever on overdrive, he will be the front man) to win a "Battle of the Bands" so he can use the prize money to pay off his debts. He is so immune to the needs of anyone else that at one point he declaims, "I'm so tired of people always bugging me for the money I owe them."
Usually, a character like this would have a second act transformation in which he discovers the world does not in fact revolve around him and his needs, and he would step up and use his unique gifts to help others. While Dewey's passion for rock 'n' roll does help the kids in his class learn to stand up for themselves and break out of their bubbles of privilege, this only happens as a side effect of his selfish quest to win the Battle of the Bands andin his fantasymove on to become an arena-filling rock star, and not from any self-realization. The only desire he has for the kids is to join him in his disdain for "the Man," that unseen force of all that is evil in his world, ranging from Principal Mullins (a talented Lexie Dorsett Sharp) to fidget spinners.
As Dewey Finn, Rob Colletti is suitably raw and energetic and has an easy chemistry with his younger cast members, but notably less with Sharp and the other adults on stage. As Ned and Patty, whose apartment Dewey has been crashing in, Matt Bittner and Emily Borromeo are trapped in roles that are far too clichéd to be of interest. Ned is a milquetoast doormat of a man, and Patty is written as a haranguing harpy. Surprisingly, Julian Fellowes, who created "Downton Abbey," wrote the book, but little of his prodigious talent is on display here. He also fails to create a moment where we sense the kids transforming from uber-competitive, Ivy League-bound conformists into a gang of little rockers.
There are reasons to see School of Rock while it's here, just not enough of them. The set and costumes by Anna Louizos are marvelous. The songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber illustrate his melodic skills (and you will hear in the score references to other Lloyd Webber works, notably Jesus Christ Superstar) and provide some energetic moments. The opening number, "I'm Too Hot for You," is an hysterical rock anthem screamed out by the shirtless front man of Dewey's former band, No Vacancy, and "You're in the Band" is a raucous ode to inclusiveness. But the lyrics (by Glenn Slater) are mostly pedestrian and unimaginative.
The best incentive to see School of Rock is to revel in the skills of the young performers. Though their vocals are sometimes weak (and often hard to understand) and their acting often less than stellar, their musicianship is first rate, and when they play you can sense the fervor they feel, and that almost lifts School of Rock out of the self-absorbed mess of its lead character's life. Almost.
School of Rock, through July 22, 2018, at SHN's Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $55 -$256, and are available by calling the box office at 888-746-1799 or by visiting SHNSF.com. For more information on the tour, visit ustour.schoolofrockthemusical.com.