To borrow from The Who’s Pete Townshend, the kind of guitar god celebrated in “School of Rock,” the kids are alright in this stage-musical adaptation of the 2003 hit film that starred Jack Black. In fact, the kids are by far the best thing about the Andrew Lloyd Webber-driven “School of Rock The Musical,” in which most of the adults are portrayed as uptight bores or just plain uptight. Not only are the fourth-grade characters more entertaining than even the Dewey Finn character amply filled by Black in the movie (and by Rob Colletti onstage), but the young actors playing them rock, especially those who end up performing in the show’s climactic “Battle of the Bands.”
The “School of Rock” musical is less than three years old and is making its San Diego debut, through Sunday, at the Civic Theatre downtown. It features 12 songs by Lloyd Webber (with lyrics by Glenn Slater) while retaining three from the Richard Linklater-directed film. Of the newbies, the catchiest is the playfully anarchic “Stick It to the Man,” and while none of the tunes really rises above the level of boilerplate guitar band, the musicianship, including that of the kids, is solid.
As in the original film, the musical’s story (penned by Julian Fellowes of staid “Downton Abbey” fame) finds slovenly slacker Dewey Finn booted from his band No Vacancy and crashing with nerdy schoolteacher pal Ned Schneebly (Matt Bittner) and Ned’s girlfriend Patty (Emily Borromeo), one of the aforementioned uptight adults. Facing banishment for lack of paying rent, Dewey impersonates Ned to grab a job teaching at very proper Horace Green School. It’s there, after a spree of anti-establishment antics in the classroom, that he discovers the musical talent of his pupils, and under his rowdy tutelage they’re transformed from sedate classical players to rockers. The stars, playing their own instruments with panache, include guitarist Zach (Vincent Molden), drummer Freddy (Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton), bassist Katie (Theodora Silverman) and keyboardist Lawrence (Theo Mitchell-Penner).
Colletti, a veteran of “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway, is in the daunting position of trying to walk and rock in Black’s formidable footsteps, but he and Lexie Dorsett Sharp as school principal (and closet rock fan) Rosalie Mullins are “School of Rock’s” grown-ups to root for. Among the other young actors in the ensemble, Iara Nemirovsky shines as the domineering student Summer Hathaway, while Grier Burke belts out a crowd-pleasing, a capella “Amazing Grace.”
The rock ‘n’ roll of “School of Rock” is evocative of a time before iTunes and Spotify, a time of exhaustive guitar solos and gyrating hair bands. In that respect, this show’s leitmotif feels nostalgic, even anachronistic, more so now than perhaps it did when the film was released 15 years ago. But as a soundscape for a feel-good story about underdogs determined to stick it to the man and have fun while doing so, “School of Rock” strikes all the right chords. (Review originally published in The San Diego Union-Tribune on 6/15/18.)
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat