Making the Grade

Energetic 'School of Rock' is great fun as it disses stodginess with a rebellious riff.



Gianna Harris (Tomika) belts out a tune while Rob Colletti (Dewey) plays a mean guitar.

Photo © Matthew Murphy

Making fun of school has been fodder for rock and roll music going back to 1959, when The Coasters’ Charlie Brown had the nerve to walk into the classroom cool and slow and call the English teacher “Daddy-O.”

 “Charlie Brown” made it to number two on the Billboard Top 100. Rock and roll has been taking school to school ever since. Who knows how many kids Sam Cooke spoke for a year later when he said he didn’t know much about the French he took or his science book in “What A Wonderful World”? It was only a matter of time before Brownsville Station (and later, Motley Crue) were “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” and The Ramones were suggesting that the primary function of a “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” was to make it convenient to “have some kicks and get some chicks.”

My two favorites in the genre—“My Old School” by Steely Dan, and “The Wall,” Pink Floyd’s immortal schoolyard scree—are a bit more subtle about it. And it fell to Bruce Springsteen’s retrospective declaration, in “No Retreat, No Surrender,” to sum it all up with: “We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school. ”

Which is pretty much the theme of School of Rock: The Musical, a touring production that’s at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts through Dec. 31.

Given the longstanding connection between learning institutions and a musical genre that loves taking teacher to task, it’s a wonder it took so long for somebody to come up with a Broadway musical to mirror the mocking. But, voila, comes the story of Dewey, an utterly broke musician who gets kicked out of a rock band, fakes his way into a job as a substitute teacher at a stodgy private school, ignores the standard lesson plan in favor of an improvised classic-rock curriculum, and turns a classroom of downtrodden middle-schoolers into an enlightened ensemble that just might win a battle of the bands competition if he can whip them into rock-band shape in spite of all the uppity adults trying to shoosh them.

The play is more about charm than counterculture, in an adaptation authored by none other than Andrew Lloyd Webber and based on the 2003 movie starring Jack Black.

It’s good to see Webber’s work on a smaller scale, especially since School of Rock happens to fall, in this season’s Broadway in Orlando lineup, close on the heels of a rare Webber misstep, the lavishly produced but thematically impoverished Phantom of the Opera sequel, Love Never Dies, whose subtitle might have been “But You’ll Wish That You Had by The End of This Show.”

Not with this one, you won’t.

There’s a nice musical counterpoint between the irreverent, toe-tapping liveliness of the rock and roll songs the kids get to sing—“Stick It to the Man” being the best of them—and the old-school silliness of the overweening school anthems the teachers burble.

Rob Colletti is a chunky charmer and a loveble teddy bear of a rebel as Dewey (in the program notes, Colletti gives an honoring nod to “Ms. Brady, my first music teacher.”) His charges, particularly Gianna Harris as Tomika and Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton as Freddy, are sprightly and determined in their musicianship. The perky choreography suits the age range: Nothing bespeaks the eternal effervescence of rock like middle-schoolers in private-school blazers and pleated skirts pushing their desks aside and bouncing around as if somebody sneaked a trampoline into the classroom.

Yes, it’s predictable. Not a lot of guesswork involved in figuring out what’s going to happen on the way to the upbeat sing-along finale. But we know how all those oldies but goodies turn out, too, and we keeping humming along to them just the same, don’t we?

For ticket information, click here.

 

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