"SCHOOL OF ROCK," through June 2, Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main (801-355-2787 or broadway-at-the-eccles.com); running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
SALT LAKE CITY — Rock 'n' roll isn’t about being perfect. That’s what wannabe rock star/fake substitute teacher Dewey Finn tells his impressionable students in the 2003 movie “School of Rock.”
No, rock 'n' roll isn’t about being perfect, but in the film, Jack Black’s role as the down-on-his-luck Dewey is pretty much perfect. For almost 16 years, audiences have enjoyed Black’s goofy wide-eyed expressions, comic timing and wild energy as he transforms the young students at the Horace Green prep school into rock gods.
It’s a tall order following up the near perfection of Black's performance and adapting a well-loved movie into a musical, but award-winning composer Andrew Lloyd Webber didn't balk at the task. His "School of Rock" the musical premiered on Broadway in 2015 and now tours the world, including a short run through June 2 at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake City. And while it probably isn’t fair to draw a comparison, because the film is the musical’s source material, a comparison is just inevitable — a fact that proves problematic for the person playing Dewey but allows the cast of kids to shine.
At the start of the opening night production on Tuesday, watching Merritt David Janes as Dewey was a bit jarring. Janes seemed to be straddling the line between impersonating Black and trying to make the role his own, but he never really found solid footing on either side. But Janes does have a nice growly voice that’s a great match for a rock musical, singing his heart out on catchy songs Webber has added to the story like “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock.”
Webber’s musical — with lyrics by Glenn Slater (lyricist for Disney’s “Tangled”) and a book by Julian Fellowes (creator of “Downton Abbey”) — follows the movie’s storyline closely, but different cultural references are peppered throughout the musical (one of the musical’s funniest lines, not found in the movie, mentions the urban legend that Cass Elliot from the band the Mamas and the Papas died choking on a ham sandwich).
That ends up being a good thing as references to the Kardashians, fidget spinners and the “Floss” dance gradually help to separate the story from the 2003 film and, in turn, help release Janes from Black’s shadow.
But it was the kids who were the stars and heart of the show Tuesday night. Before the start of the production, a recorded message from Webber informed the audience that the kids aren’t just holding their instruments for show. That made everything these kids did Tuesday night — from delivering their comedic lines to belting power ballads — even more impressive.
While Sami Bray — who was spot-on as the quintessential teacher’s pet Summer — had a lovely, clear voice, she was able to hilariously transform that talent into a truly cringe-worthy performance of “Memory” from the musical “Cats” (another Webber production) when she auditions to be a backup singer for her classmates’ band, the School of Rock.
Leanne Parks’ Katie nailed the bass face with her bobbing head and puckered up lips, and her fingerwork on the bass was equally impressive. Young guitarist Zack, played by Mystic Inscho, performed his riffs with gusto and was charming to watch as he jumped across the stage on one leg while playing his instrument. There was cymbal-smashing and drumstick-twirling Freddy, played by Cameron Trueblood, and Julian Brescia was delightful as piano player Lawrence, a sweet character who grew in confidence the more he banged on the keys.
And then there’s Tomika, played by Camille de la Cruz. Talk about a rock star. One of the musical’s greatest strengths is that we get a more in-depth view of the kids’ vulnerability and emotions than the mere glimpse the movie provides. We see how all of the kids are floundering under the heavy weight of their parents’ expectations. In the musical, Tomika’s story arc is the most powerful. Her shyness is a lot more emphasized here, making her shining moment in Act 2 where she finally uses her voice and performs a take-me-to-church rendition of “Amazing Grace” all the more moving.
In one scene early on, all of the kids sing and plead with their parents, “I’ve got so much inside/ If only you would listen.” So when Dewey’s philosophies on rock come rolling into Horace Green, it’s literal music to these kids’ ears. Because rock 'n' roll isn’t about being perfect, Dewey tells them. It’s about sticking it to the man! Through music — including songs from the movie and Webber’s own signature rock opera style — these kids learn to set aside their doubts and fears and stand up for what they want.
So although unintentional, Dewey’s scheme to pose as a substitute teacher and get the kids at Horace Green to compete in the Battle of the Bands so he can win some cash and pay off his rent ends up helping the students face their insecurities and find their voices.
And whether or not it’s intentional, none of the adult leads in this production, as solid as they are, ever outshine the kids (although Lexie Dorsett Sharp as the strict Horace Green principal Rosalie Mullins does do an outstanding job singing the emotional ballad “Where Did the Rock Go?” — a song that also gives her character more depth than what we see in the movie).
It’s the kids at Horace Green that were front and center melting faces. It’s the kids at Horace Green that got the Eccles Theater crowd cheering and throwing rock signs as if they were attending a Battle of the Bands concert rather than a Broadway musical. It's the kids at Horace Green that were the most memorable part of the show.
And that’s exactly the way it should be.
Content advisory: Like the movie, the musical “School of Rock” would likely draw a PG-13 for some rude humor, language and one scene between Dewey Finn and Horace Green principal Rosalie Mullins involving alcohol.