Before the show even starts, a pre-recorded message from Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber plays over the sound system.
He wants us to know that the children onstage – and there are many of them, a bunch of tiny triple-threats-in-progress – are really playing the instruments in their hands. Live.
That might seem obvious for a show about, well, a bunch of overachieving kids who are roped into being in a guy’s band after he fakes his way into a substitute teaching job at their elite primary school. But once the show kicks into gear and the kids start to play, you can see why the creatives of School of Rock felt they needed to remind us what we were seeing was real. The kids are so good, it’s almost unbelievable.
The highlight of School of Rock, the 2003 film written by Mike White, was Jack Black as Dewey Finn, that wannabe musician who can’t pay his rent, and finds personal growth through playing music with kids.
Black was in fine form for the film, a bombastic force of nature with unflagging energy. He’s played onstage in the Australian tour by Brent Hill, who seems superhuman himself, a bundle of movement and enthusiastic vocalising. But even though he’s the sun around which this show rightfully revolves, he’s eclipsed by all those kids.
And really, thank god for those kids, a rotating ensemble – these wholesome tiny talents who can pick up a guitar or bass, settle at the keys, or wield a clipboard with authority. As rock music gives them a voice to challenge their parents and share their personalities with the world, they elevate this musical – just a sound, functioning piece of musical theatre – into something that might, for a minute, make you feel. For a minute.
The book – by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes – is neatly made, though it’s deeply uncool (and it so often tries to be cool). And Lloyd Webber, despite the Technicolour Dreamcoats, opera ghosts, and Jellicle cats in his back catalogue, does have some rock opera credentials in Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita.
Glenn Slater – lyricist of Tangled and Love Never Dies – penned the lyrics here, and boy, do they make you miss Lloyd Webber’s old partnership with Tim Rice. This show doesn’t hold a candle to Lloyd Webber’s best rock moments, but there’s a reminder, in the pretty-good Stick it to the Man, that he understands how to take rock and run it through a theatrical filter to make something pretty pleasing, even in facsimile.
But there’s a looseness to this production that defies the economy of the book and score. It stubbornly refuses to hang together. Part of that could be the sound design. While musical director Laura Tipoki is punching the rock moments with anthemic gusto, the final mix is muddy; it’s hard work for the ear to make sense of the landscape.
But it’s also that this production coasts happily on its charm, and doesn’t really try to round out its more superficial edges. You can see why: the ensemble is stacked with talent that makes it look easy, and the story still works. It takes a lot to summon charm every night, let alone deliver gravitas and precision when its comedic core is by definition unruly. So, it coasts, and the kids push everything just over the line.
The problem is that, when we’re coasting on charm, you can really notice the flaws of the book and score. The women are all shades of the same uptight character – the most developed of these, Principal Rosalie Mullins (the always wonderful Amy Lehpamer) gets to be an inner rock god too, and little Type-A student Summer (Deeana Cheong Foo on opening night) is obviously the smartest person in the room at all times– and the narrative in this production doesn’t allow room for complexity. The score is largely serviceable, which means much of it is forgettable.
But even the hardest of hearts would have trouble resisting these small humans with gigantic talent, playing and singing their hearts out. They’re all very good, plenty of them are natural hams and therefore very funny, and their stories – children looking for permission to be creative and share their inner selves with their parents and the world – are the ones that really matter.
Take the smallest person you know.
This content is created with the support of City of Sydney