Looking at the credits for School of Rock – The Musical, I could think of no stranger pairing to come up with for this adaptation of the 2003 film than Lord Andrew Lloyd Weber and Julian Fellowes. It just goes to show that appearances are not everything and great talent is transferrable. I must not forget Glenn Slater who wrote the lyrics but I don’t know him, however, the programme says that he was in a band and that he is a fan of one of my teenage favourite groups – they weren’t yet called bands – Vanilla Fudge, so he is alright by me.
I haven’t seen the film so when I saw that the book was written by Julian Fellowes, the author of that other down with the kids rock classic Downton Abbey, I had to do a bit of research. It turns out that I was not having a psychedelic reaction to my morning statins tablet after all, and the film came first with Mr Fellowes basing the book on that, rather than the other way round. It appears that his work expands the characters of the children which probably explains the increased running time from 109 minutes of the film to over two and a half hours of the stage show.
Unlike the film, which seemingly utilises pre-existing songs, everything here is the work of Lloyd Webber and Slater, and a great job they have done on it. As with the other ALW shows I have seen, the largest part of the stage time is devoted to singing, rather than it being a play with songs. Again, I have no truck with that. It also conforms with his template of having one theme which is repeated throughout, in this case it is the battle cry, Stick It To The Man, which seemed to have been influenced by Pink’s So What. I also got the impression that Lord Andrew had a flashback to his Variation on the theme from Paganini’s 24th Caprice which he wrote for his cellist brother, Julian, when penning the tune for Time To Play. Whatever the inspiration for the music, there was not a dud amongst the songs.
The musical is a feel good work, just what we need at this moment in history, and tells the tale of Dewey Finn, a rock guitarist who gets thrown out of the band he started, No Vacancy, for his over the top stage antics. He is then told by his dominating landlady, Patty Di Marco scarily played by Nadia Violet Johnson, that he must pay the rent arrears or leave. Her compliant boyfriend, Ned Schneebly, played by Matthew Rowland, is a supply teacher and, while he is out a phone call comes for him from a posh fee paying school with an offer of work. It is Dewey who takes the call but when he hears how much money is involved he impersonates Ned and takes the job himself. Not being the best qualified person to teach, well, not qualified at all, he wings it but when he hears his pupils playing in their music class, instead of trying to teach useless subjects like math(s) and English, he decides to swap their orchestral instruments for electric guitar, keyboards, bass and drums and turns them into a rock band, with him on vocals and guitar. He was ousted from No Vacancy just before they were due to compete in a Battle of the Bands so he decides to enter himself and the kids. They come up with the name – wait for it – School of Rock.
The rest of the show is concerned with hiding their rehearsals from the other teachers, especially the staid Headmistress, Rosalie Mullins, who becomes the love interest and eventually reveals her inner rock chick. I am sure that I don’t need to tell you the ending, it was obvious by the close of the first half, but this isn’t so much about the story as the performances which, without exception, were superb.
Jake Sharp, who played Dewey Finn, was on stage throughout the show and expended so much energy I was tired just watching him. I don’t know how Jack Black played it in the film but it could not have been any better than this. The point of his character was that he was a fat slob until his focus on getting the band ready sorted him out somewhat, and in this I couldn’t erase from my mind a picture of John Belushi in my favourite film of all time The Blues Brothers. Terrific!
Rebecca Lock was also perfect as Headmistress, Rosalie Mullins, who, although wearing her hair up and dressing conservatively, had an underlying sexiness seemingly screaming to be released.
Before the show began there was a recorded message by Lord Lloyd Weber confirming that the children involved in the show most certainly did play their instruments live, and boy, did they play them. Because they are so young the cast has to be rotated therefore I won’t mention them by name as it wouldn’t be fair to the alternates as I am sure that they are of just as high a standard. Normally, when children play musical instruments they are a bit wooden in their performance, concentrating on the mechanics rather than the interpretation but this lot had it nailed. The lead guitar player was giving it his best Chuck Berry Duckwalk as well as the run across the stage and knee slide as though he had just scored the winning goal in the World Cup Final. His playing was faultless, as was that of the girl whose bass guitar was almost the same size as she was, but it was clear who was in charge of the partnership. The kid on the keyboards was also something special with the touch worthy of Mark Stein, the organist of the aforementioned Vanilla Fudge. Finally, the girl on drums could easily fill the void left by the late, great Charlie Watts. Jack Sharp was obviously superb on guitar and vocals.
I must say that when the show began I thought that it was going to be a bit too silly for my taste but once it got into its stride it grew up a bit. It occurred to me that the adults in the piece were behaving like children whilst the children were behaving like adults and when the penny dropped I could enjoy it to its fullest.
As a final thought, I was gripping my seat at one point in the show when Dewey asked the children in the band who their favourite rock singer was; the first said Taylor Swift, which drew a disparaging remark, the second replied Barbra Streisand. This piece of inverted snobbery might not mean much to you but one of my fellow writers is the second biggest Streisand fan on the face of the planet – the biggest obviously is her agent – and I was envisioning a Will Smith/Chris Rock moment should anything derogatory be said about the fragrant Miss S. Thankfully Dewey’s riposte was not too bad and I could relax again. To illustrate that the show is being constantly tweaked, the Oscar incident was referred to at one point in the evening, something only live theatre can do.
School of Rock – The Musical continues at Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday 9th April. For more details and to book tickets please go to https://leedsheritagetheatres.com/whats-on/school-of-rock/
All images suppled by Leeds Heritage Theatres, the photographs are by Paul Coltas.