Tune up your air guitar and stick it to the man – following an acclaimed debut season in Melbourne and a tour of China, the Australian production of School of Rock has opened in Brisbane and it SERIOUSLY rocks!
Dewey Finn is a guitarist with delusions of grandeur, struggling to pay rent with his rock music. Kicked out of his own band, Dewey assumes the identity of his housemate and best friend Ned Schneebly and poses as a substitute teacher at prestigious preparatory school Horace Green, which is ruled with an iron fist by the no-nonsense Rosalie Mullins. What starts as a plan to make some quick cash becomes another passion project for Dewey as he discovers the incredible musical talent of his fifth-grade class and teaches them about rock and roll so they can help him win the Battle of the Bands. Through the power of rock, along with Dewey’s unshakeable overconfidence and enthusiasm, the straight-A class become straight up rock stars, throwing off the pressures of their expensive education and pushy parents to become a guitar-shredding, bass-slapping, mind-blowing rock band.
Based on the 2003 film of the same name starring Jack Black, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation opened on Broadway to critical acclaim in 2015 and has since played to packed houses in London’s West End and across the United States before arriving in Australia. The musical has smashed box office records, garnered rave reviews (like this one!) and earned four Tony nominations, as well as winning both the 2017 Oliver for Outstanding Achievement in Music and the 2017 WhatsOnStage Award for Best New Musical.
School of Rock features 14 new songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber and all of the original songs from the movie. You’re In the Band was a definite highlight, and a chance for the young performers to strut their stuff individually; Stick It To The Man was a high-octane clincher for Act 1, capturing the absolute essence of what the show has to say. The show isn’t all high-energy rock and roll though – the kids’ harmonies tug on the heartstrings as they lament that their parents don’t listen to them or understand the problems they face in If Only You Would Listen, and Rosalie’s soaring Where Did The Rock Go? was by far my favourite new song from the musical. Time to Play could have been another great one to showcase the kids’ talent, especially Stephanie Kipnis’ Summer, but the music overpowered their voices so that the lyrics were almost indistinguishable in this number.
It is rare enough to see seasoned adult performers sing, act, dance, and play an instrument in a single show but the insanely talented cast of 9-13 year olds who performed as the fifth-grade class did it all with infectious energy and effortless cool. The musical features a rotating cast of 36 children, chosen from over one thousand hopefuls across Australia, and these pint-sized prodigies play their instruments live on stage for the full two-hour show. Their talent will absolutely astound you, even without taking their youth into account.
Sydney-based actor and composer Brent Hill was electric and eccentric as Dewey Finn, with all the karate kicks and falsetto mimicry of Jack Black’s film character and an energy that kept audience attention fixed on him. Hill had fantastic chemistry and snappy banter with every character on the stage and, when he did sing in a lower register, warm and sonorous vocals. Amy Lehpalmer was lovable as Rosalie Mullins, the uptight headmistress with a weakness for Stevie Nicks, supported by an adult chorus that alternated between parents and fellow faculty members. Her operatic voice, showed off best in an excerpt of the Queen of the Night’s aria from The Magic Flute, cut unexpectedly through the rock. John O’Hara was excellent as the real Ned Schneebly, a neat and nervous counterpoint to Dewey’s loud scruffiness, and Nadia Komazec showed off her strong voice as Ned’s self-important girlfriend Patty.
Sharp choreography, all the way down to melodramatic group reactions and Mission-Impossible-esque sneaking, was visually effective, as was the rock show lighting used in the final scenes and the fact that every prop and set piece seemed to be dynamic and moveable in some way. I would question the choice to use a Native American headdress prop for a single gag scene without context, which seemed outdated given the increased conversation around cultural appropriation in recent years and the modernisation of other aspects of the show – unlike in the film, the kids have iPads and mobile phones, listen to Taylor Swift and Kanye West, and Summer’s feminist tendencies have been intensified.
If you’ve got kids who play an instrument, take them. If you’ve forgotten what it feels like to have your face melted at the front of a rock show, or if you’re still holding on to dreams of stardom, take yourself. School of Rock is a funny, feel-good musical for all ages that will leave a grin on your face and a reignited rebellion in your heart long after the encore has ended.