At the Academy of Music this week, the kids aren’t just all right – the kids absolutely rock! The touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock, running through Sunday, is a two-hour blast of pure entertainment, with a heart at the center of its dilemma-ridden story.
Webber built his musical around the 2003 same-titled movie, in which wannabe rocker Dewey Finn (played by Jack Black in the film, and by the talented Rob Colletti here) gets kicked out of his band. Broke, unable to pay rent, he fakes his way into a substitute teaching job at a local prep school. When he hears the kids from his fifth-grade class perform music, he puts them all in a group designed to win the local Battle of the Bands competition, where he can finally prove his rock-and-roll mettle.
Put straightforwardly, it sounds like a fun, harmless romp. But these children’s parents (all featured) pay $50K a year for a pristine education, and Dewey commits massive fraud. Julian Fellowes’ book for the show exploits the moral ambivalence of Dewey’s musical pursuits right until the last scene, adding comedy, a bit of intrigue, and a healthy dose of frustration at Dewey’s Falstaff-by-way-of-Homer-Simpson character. To Webber’s credit, his music doesn’t overwhelm enough to let Dewey’s exuberance and jerkish charm gloss over his incompetence and lies.
In style, School of Rock returns to Webber’s origins in rock (like his first big hit, Jesus Christ Superstar), and the music, though simple in structure, drives the story forward with an infectious energy. Colletti powers many of the songs with screaming vocals and some wicked licks on the guitar. Natasha Katz’s lighting and Anna Louizos’ set creates a persuasive world of gritty concert venues, a posh prep school, and the upper-middle-class homes of the students. JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography stomps the floor with a rocker’s righteous zest, and Laurence Connor’s direction blends the momentous energy of live performance with moments of tender drama.
The kids — all playing their own instruments to accompany the pit orchestra — provide much of the amazement and heart. As the too-stiff guitar prodigy Zack, Vincent Molden impresses every time he strikes his ax, and local young actors Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton and Theodora Silverman kill it on the drums and bass, respectively. If these kids’ transformation through rock and roll – from learn-by-rote students to life-affirming musicians – doesn’t pluck at your heart-strings, well, you’re the type of square who needs to see this musical again.
School of Rock
Through Sunday, April 1, at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St. Tickets: $20-$145. Information: 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.