REVIEW — Let’s keep this review of Tuacahn’s current production of “School of Rock: The Musical” simple: If you loved the 2003 Jack Black film, you’ll love this live version. In fact, the stage production might even improve upon the beloved film when you consider that most of the songs are performed live by a ridiculously talented group of kids – with no second takes or film edits possible.
“School of Rock” is something of a risk for Tuacahn, given that not everyone will embrace the rock format (a genre that continues to fade from modern-day charts) which forges the show’s foundation. The story explains how a goofball, guitar-god wannabee named Dewey Finn (Jonathan Wagner) ends up substitute teaching at the prestigious Horace Mann prep school. There, bereft of credentials or instructional skills, he converts his class of middle-school students to the almighty power of rock-n-roll. Traditional theater patrons need not fear, as the catchy musical numbers are penned by none other than Andrew Lloyd Webber (lyrics by Glenn Slater), and his pop confections fit nicely into the rock pastiche that commands Dewey’s headbanger attitude.
After a bit of backstory set-up, the production really kicks into gear with “You’re in the Band,” which showcases the moment when Dewey transforms the classically-trained kids to their new electrified alter-egos in order to compete in an upcoming “Battle of the Bands” competition. Initially reluctant, the entire class eventually succumbs to Dewey’s “rock-n-roll can save your soul” sermonizing. (Just try resisting “Stick It to the Man’s” anthemic call and response). Wagner’s experience performing the role over 140 times on Broadway shows as he almost mesmerizingly channels Jack Black without impersonating the iconic actor, and despite being onstage nearly the entire show, appearing to relish every moment.
The show would simply fall flat without Wagner’s unflappable persona, but “School of Rock” truly soars on the wings of his young bandmates. The four instrument-playing performers (Brady Davis, Vince Ermita, Sloane Griffith, Adrienne Amanda Morrow) are all legit musicians, and together they form a dynamic ensemble. Laurel Knell (as high-achieving band manager Summer) and Ava Smith (as the shy, big voiced Tomika) have scene-stealing moments while displaying stage presence well beyond their years.
While Dewey’s shenanigans dominate the show’s first half, the second act allows the kids to shine and provides some nice moments for Principal Rosalie Mullins (a terrific Alexandra Melrose), particularly on “Where Did the Rock Go?” For those willing to look closely, there are meaningful themes about the challenge of trying to live out your aspirations when life demands more practical choices, and how kids need to create their own dreams that aren’t necessarily in harmony with parental expectations. (Credit book author Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” fame.)
Sure, it’s probably preposterous to think an unruly imposter could hijack a classroom for weeks on end without being exposed, but “School of Rock” keeps the audience so entertained there’s no time to contemplate plot flaws. The staging and visual effects are wonderfully simple but efficient. And like Tuacahn’s other outdoor productions this season (“Annie” and “Beauty and the Beast”), director Larry Raben wisely cuts down the large stage so it feels more like an intimate Broadway production–although this strategy might make enjoying the show from 20 or more rows back more difficult.
For those who never connected with the movie “School of Rock,” the musical may not offer much in the way of surprises. But for those who realize, sadly, that rock’s glory days may be history, Tuacahn’s production reminds us that while you can’t always get what you want, once in a while you get the joyous live theatre you need.
“School of Rock” performs weekly through Oct. 22 with ticket prices ranging from $32 to $113. Children under 3 are not permitted. Contact Tuacahn.org or (435) 652-3300 for tickets and information.
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