Review: ‘School of Rock’ shreds hard with talent, fun and inspiration

Be prepared for some face-melting before you go see School of Rock.

Not literally — that would be a very different type of musical — but in the amazing-guitar-shredding-rock-n-roll kind of way.

Right from the get-go, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical — with book by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes and lyrics by Glenn Slater — is ready to rock, starting with the opening number, where audiences are introduced to Dewey (played in last night’s performance by Rob Colletti). Dewey is a wannabe rockstar who is currently in the band No Vacancy — but not for long.

Down on his luck after getting kicked out of the band, the hits just keep on coming. He loses his job and his roommates — more specifically his roommate’s girlfriend — is complaining that he doesn’t pay rent. She wants him out. Then opportunity strikes and Dewey finds himself posing as a substitute teacher at Horace Green, where he might have just found his next band; the kids he’s now teaching.

Before discussing the kids in the musical, I have to talk about Colletti’s performance. Taking on a role that was once played by Jack Black (in the 2003 film of the same name that the musical is based on) would be a hard task for anyone. Black is a large personality and a hard guy to forget. But within the first five seconds of Colletti being on stage, you’ll be saying, ‘Jack who?’ He is Dewey in every cell of his body. Colletti may not have been in the Broadway production of School of Rock, but after watching his performance it’s impossible to envision anyone else doing the role justice.

Not only does Colletti have fantastic timing — he can make something as small as trying to whistle hilarious — but he makes the task of acting with 12 kids look like a walk in the park. Anyone who has watched a production with kids knows that it isn’t always an easy task, but Colletti makes you feel like he’s an old family friend to them, his warmth for them radiating off the stage. Plus, he doesn’t put up with any of their sass, especially from Summer (Sami Bray), who is tiny, adorable, hilarious, and slightly terrifying. She also has the pipes and range to go toe-to-toe with just about anyone in the cast.

Speaking of those kids, know that face-melting, guitar-shredding music I mentioned earlier? Most of that is performed by the kids, giving School of Rock musical theater’s first-ever kids’ rock band, who play their instruments live onstage each performance.

There’s Cameron Trueblood on drums as Freddy, Leanne Parks rocking out as Katie on bass, Mystic Inscho playing his heart out as Zack on guitar, and Theo Mitchell-Penner as pianist Lawrence. Quick note: Mitchell-Penner and Sammy Dell, who plays Billy, have comedic timing that rivals people twice their height and three times their age.

These kids play those instruments so well they seem like a natural extension of them, like the guitar or piano or drums is just another limb.

The first time audiences get a sense of their talent is during Act I’s “You’re in the Band,” which shows each student getting their instrument. While that’s the first time you hear them play, “Stick It to the Man” is the first time you get to hear them rock, and easily the show’s best number.

With choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter and direction by Laurence Connor the numbers, at times, feel like you’re at an actual rock concert, especially the show’s closer, where the crowd is encouraged to stand up and clap along to the beat. This effect is ten-fold when you bring in Natasha Katz’s lighting design, which perfects the rock concert feel.

Hunter was an associate choreographer for Broadway’s Spring Awakening, and that’s felt in School of Rock, where people are jumping off desks and around the room. Thankfully, there are no depressed teens in this show.

Those giant group numbers, especially the ones where the kids get to show off a little, are where School of Rock shines. They outweigh most, if not all, of the show’s solos, which aren’t that memorable in performance or lyrics — except one in Act II, Grier Burke’s rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

Up until that point in the show, you don’t hear much from Burke’s character Tomika, who is new to the school and rather shy. But then, in one of the most glorious moments of the musical, she tells Dewey that she too wants to be part of the band. He asks what she can do before she tells him she can sing, but she doesn’t want to sing backup like he had asked because she’s nobody’s backup, she’s a singer. Then she starts to sing the aforementioned song a cappella, and you’ll be upset you didn’t get to hear her sing before, she’s that good. Burke may only be 10-years-old but she’s easily the show’s vocal standout, and I can’t wait to see where her career goes from here.

The songs in the musical, as mentioned, range from group numbers to solo ballads. Webber — the man and legend behind Broadway phenomenons like Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and Jesus Christ Superstar, just to name a few — created 14 new songs for the production to go along with all of the original songs from the movie. Just imagining Webber sitting down to watch School of Rock for the first time, then deciding it needed to be made into a musical, is kind of what the show’s all about: sometimes you just have to let your inner wild child out to rock.

School of Rock
Wharton Center
Sep. 18-23