Review: Big-hearted School of Rock entertains despite the odd cliché

Theodora Silverman and Rob Colletti in a scene from School of Rock. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Had we all been even once graced with a teacher like Dewey Finn, the world might be a happier place right now.

Dewey is the slacker dude whose passion for rock ‘n’ roll, generous heart and super-sized personality ignite Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rowdy if predictable musical School of Rock, now at the National Arts Centre.

He may sleep on a bed made of milk crates and be behind on the rent but Dewey – played here by Rob Colletti with a blend of smart-ass earnestness, loose-canon mania and the occasional unpleasant shrillness – understands a higher form of commitment than the usual ones of financial and social striving. For Dewey and his guitar, life is about serving the god of rock who, in turn, bestows on the faithful the freedom to be who they really are and maybe even achieve victory in a battle of the bands.

Such unalloyed commitment – parlayed into a form of high art when Jack Black played Dewey in School of Rock, the 2003 film upon which Webber based his musical – gets our hero into treacherous waters when, under false pretences, he lands a temporary teaching job at Horace Green, a by-the-book private school.

Late to class, hung over and his belly preceding him like a precursor to insatiable musical indulgence, Dewey on day one clearly doesn’t fit in this rigid place (Anna Louizos’ woody set and restraining costumes tell you all you need to know about the stuffy, traditional school).

He doesn’t fit, that is, until he and the kids connect over music. That’s when Dewey cooks up the idea of forming a rock band with his students, who until now had been fed a steady diet of classical music, and taking them to a battle of the bands.

Dewey never for a moment doubts the ability of his young charges to become, if not rock icons, at least serious battle contenders. His unwavering belief in them, something their overly busy and ambitious parents don’t have, turns the kids from rule-bound automatons into, well, kids. They dance, sing, play their guitars and drums and keyboards with infectious joy. As members of the battle-bound band School of Rock, they become what Dewey has always been – a flouter of rules, regulations and societal expectations in the best rock tradition.

“Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t about being perfect,” Dewey instructs his young band mates. “It’s about sticking it to the man.” Indeed, the song Stick It to the Man is sung three times in the show.

There’s some promising talent among the dozen or so young performers. Grier Burke, who plays the timid Tomika, hurls both voice and nascent emotion to the rafters when she sings Amazing Grace. Mystic Inscho as Zack plays a mean guitar. There’s also the sheer energy that all these young performers bring to the stage under director Laurence Connor and choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter.

The story (book by Julian Fellowes, lyrics by Glenn Slater) isn’t exactly averse to stereotypes. Dewey’s fellow teachers and the kids’ parents are what you’d expect: a mix of uptight men and women cowed by the gods of career, regimentation and fear. These people do or say little that’s noteworthy, and their appearances too often do more to slow up the narrative, which is already overly long, than to elucidate it.

Among the clichés that do work: Rosalie Mullins, Horace Green’s dogmatic principal played by Lexie Dorsett Sharp. With her tight bun and tight skirts, Rosalie is all about self-control. Not unexpectedly, Dewey’s influence coaxes out her inner rocker, given fine voice in her big number, Where Did the Rock Go? The song is one of the few memorable tunes in a musical remarkably barren of them.

It’s also one of the few songs where the lyrics are audible. Whether it was the NAC’s inadequate technology in Southam Hall or just poorly balanced sound makes little difference: What’s the point of a musical where you can’t understand what people are singing about? The children’s voices in their speaking parts were also frequently inaudible.

No one would call it meaty, and this production has its share of flaws, but School of Rock is entertaining. Like Dewey, it’s got a heart as big as rock ‘n’ roll itself. And it makes you wonder why we all became so hidebound when we grew up.

School of Rock is a touring production presented by Broadway Across Canada. It was reviewed Tuesday and continues in until Sept. 30. Tickets: 

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.