Don’t cry for Andrew Lloyd Weber. It looks like he’ll have yet another Broadway hit with the crowd-pleasing tuner School of Rock. A lively adaptation of the 2003 movie starring Jack Black, it’s playing in the same prime theater where Cats purred along for 18 years. School of Rock probably won’t last nearly that long, but it’s a lot funnier and much more fun than that inexplicably long-lived feline extravaganza.
It turns out that Lloyd Weber has a knack for writing rock songs. The best of them is “Stick It to the Man,” which is reprised twice. It’s so catchy and upbeat that I wouldn’t have minded hearing it a few more times. Part of the credit, however, goes to the terrific star of the show, Alex Brightman, and the talented kids in the cast. Brightman, who has a powerful voice and boundless energy, does his best to erase memories of Black (who is so good in the movie that he deserves royalties from the musical’s producers).
Brightman plays Dewey, a hapless would-be rock star who is way behind on his rent and gets fired from the band he started because he’s not as sexy as the band’s other members. The amusing opening number, “I’m Too Hot for You,” features one of his bandmates trying way too hard to be sexy. To make money, Dewey takes a job as a substitute teacher at a posh private school. When he realizes that his pint-sized pupils are skilled musicians, he has them form a rock band. The musical really takes off with “You’re in the Band,” in which the young actors show off their musical chops. (And yes, as Lloyd Weber informs in a brief pre-show message, the kids are playing their instruments.)
The kids also sing well in numbers like “If Only You Would Listen,” a sweet ballad about parents not paying attention to what their kids are saying and feeling. Glenn Slater (The Little Mermaid) is the lyricist. Lloyd Weber mixes up the playlist nicely, and the show turns out to have a heart as well as a driving beat. The title song, an amped-up version of one in the movie, is also winning. When the kids dance around and jump in the air, you may be reminded of the tykes in Matilda. But School of Rock’s mood is much lighter – and here the kids tote electric guitars and bang on drums.
The little-known Brightman carries the show, and he’ll get a lot of exercise doing the demanding role eight times a week. Sierra Boggess (The Phantom of the Opera and The Little Mermaid) has fun letting her hair down. In addition to Lloyd Weber’s music, she gets to sing a Stevie Nicks song (drunkenly) and show off her high notes in the Queen of the Night’s aria from The Magic Flute. Don’t worry, it all somehow fits in thanks to Lloyd Weber’s rock orchestrations.
Book writer Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame) is hardly the first person one would think of to work on a light musical with a rock score, but he did an excellent job. Some of the funny lines are his, while others come straight from the movie (written by Mike White). A few characters, like Dewey’s roommate’s girlfriend Patty (Mamie Parris), are two-dimensional. Make that one-dimensional. But the whole cast is incredibly energetic and multi-talented.
Propelled by Brightman’s performance and Lloyd Weber’s bouncy score, School of Rock should rock on for some time. Let’s hope it keeps Cats from clawing its way back into the beautiful Winter Garden Theatre.