School of Rock

School of Rock
By Andrew Lloyd Webber, Julian Fellowes and Glenn Slater. Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne. Opening Night: November 9, 2018.

Based on the 2003 film of the same name, School of Rock has been revamped by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Julian Fellowes and Glenn Slater into a highly-enjoyable romp that appeals, literally, to all ages.

Brent Hill is fearless and tireless as the schlubby eternal dreamer and loser Dewey Finn. Dewey wants nothing more than rock glory as the winner of the Battle of the Bands.  Ejected from his current band, Dewey is also facing homelessness, as the shrewish girlfriend of his best friend, Ned (Nadia Komazec and John O'Hara) want him to pay his share of the rent or leave.  Dewey refuses to give up on his dreams, however, delivering a stunning "When I Climb to the top of Mount Rock" as a personal manifesto, and later "Children of Rock" with Ned.  

His money problems persist, until the Horace Green Prep Academy ("Here at Horace Green" - and good luck getting that tune out of your head a week later) calls to offer Ned a relief teaching job, and Dewey takes the phone call, accepts the job, and turns up at the unsuspecting school, run by the tightly-wound Rosalie (Amy Lehpamer). Dewey has no idea what he's doing (and the kids know it), until he hears the students in his class playing classical music, and immediately forms them into his own rock band "project".  

Brent Hill does a wonderful job here in connecting with the children, and opening up an entirely new subculture to them. Dewey's man-child persona turns out to be his greatest asset: his enthusiasm for music means he treats the kids as talented individuals ("You're in the Band") and takes them completely seriously, which is a change of pace for the children, who were resigned to being over-scheduled and ignored by wealthy parents ("If only you would listen").  The kids embrace the band more and more enthusiastically, ending the first half of the show with a rousing rendition of "Stick it to the Man".  The way they embrace rule-breaking is an absolute delight.

The second half is preparation for the upcoming Battle of the Bands. The mostly-silent Tomika finds her voice. The faculty know something is up, but can't get to the bottom of it. And Dewey invites Principal Rosalie on a date to a dive bar, firstly to schmooze her into giving permission to take the kids on a "field trip to a concert" but also again to help her reconnect to her Stevie-Nicks-loving younger self ("Where did the Rock go?"). Dewey's childlike delight in rock music helps the kids to be children again, and Rosalie and Ned to remember being youthful and in love with a particular passion.

It's all going swimmingly until Ned discovers Dewey's pay cheque from the Academy, and Dewey ends up fleeing from his students, the Academy and Ned's horror at his betrayal. But he has not reckoned with his ability to inspire the kids, and they persuade him to compete with them in the Battle of the Bands (a beautifully-sung reprise of "If only you would listen"). Ned also finds his inner rock god again, and it melts the otherwise hardened heart of girlfriend Patty.

The show centres around Dewey’s journey, but the children’s ensemble matches him in appeal and extraordinary talent.  An announcement made at the start of the show confirms yes, all the kids play their own instruments in the band. And they are spectacularly good. Their ensemble and vocal delivery is likewise excellent. More to the point, the music they are asked to sing and the dancing and stage direction are firmly kid-centric, capitalizing on their boundless energy and enthusiasm and developing voices. The child cast seemed to navigate a full-length performance with consummate ease, and the final numbers were just as fiercely performed at the end as at the beginning of the show. Kudos to director Laurence Connor and choreographer Joann M. Hunter for stitching together a diverse group into a near-perfect ensemble. The set and costumes were simple but endlessly adaptable (my favourite was the wheeled school desks, which allowed the kids to reconfigure their classroom in seconds, and they had endless fun doing it).

School of Rock is a hugely enjoyable show: the all-ages audience clapped and cheered their way through the show as the cast delivered seamless, energized song after song. For the climactic scenes at the Battle of the Bands, the audience quite naturally transformed into a rock concert audience, cheering on the band with a well-deserved standing ovation. It was a delight to watch and pure, high-energy fun.

Alex Armstrong

Photographer: Matthew Murphy

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