School of Rock on Broadway

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Linklater are two artists I would never have expected to get peanut butter in each others’ chocolate, but darned if the former’s Broadway adaptation of the latter’s comedy film doesn’t provide a tasty mix of musical ballads and contemporary comedy.

In the musical version of School of Rock (★★★★), Alex Brightman (no relation to Sarah) slides comfortably into the role of Dewey Finn, which was popularized by Jack Black in Linklater’s film. The first real danger in such adaptations is that actors will mimic rather than recreate. It helps on this score that Brightman can sing and dance as well as crack wise. Beyond that, though, he gives Dewey a softer, slightly sadder tone than Black’s character, sanding down just a pinch of the prickliness from the accidental teacher’s relentless, manic snark. He’s exuberant and energetic without filters, but he’s rarely deliberately mean.

Brightman also has a great chemistry with the kids. Tell someone there are children in a Broadway show and their insulin may spike, immediately thinking of lovable, plucky orphans in shows like Annie or Oliver! The kids here do provide a hefty dose of sentiment — “If Only You Would Listen” smartly laces the neglected tykes’ sadness with a streak of anger — but their work ethic and undeniable talent insulate the story against charges that success is just about faking it or getting lucky. (The show’s anthem reminds listeners that there is no way to “Stick It to the Man” until you “get up off your Ipads.”)

The musical also improves, albeit maybe only slightly, on the film’s gender stereotypes. (The representation of women is something I’ve found problematic in many of Linklater’s films.) Rosalie, the principal at Horace Green Elementary, is a stickler for rules, but “Where Did the Rock Go?” reveals that she is more a victim of a joyless bureaucracy than a champion of it. The role of antagonist gets distributed among an array of yuppie parents and the wife of Dewey’s henpecked friend, Ned.  Her shrewish “Give Up Your Dream” provides humor on the Broadway album, though it seemed cut from the show I attended, perhaps because the first act runs a bit long. The girls in the classroom fare slightly better. Summer, the “manager” gets her own song to kick off Act II, and the show smartly insists that boys and girls both rock out rather than making all the girls back-up singers.

There’s a pervasive sameness to movies these days. Sure there are pockets of exception: festivals and awards season. Mindless popcorn movies are fun, but they are coming earlier and earlier in the year, monopolizing the screens at the multiplex. May is not even over and we’ve already had three comic book movies, with a fourth opening next week. In such a climate, live theater offers an attractive alternative. And given that more and more movie theaters are raising prices and studios are needlessly rendering two-star action movies into 3D in order to charge a premium, the cost differential isn’t always that great.

It doesn’t have to be Broadway. There are plenty of local schools and community theaters that can provide a quality experience for their patrons. Who knows? Visiting one might even change your mind about funding the arts for your kids. Wherever you are or go, try to avail yourself of the opportunity to see live performances. They come with a vitality, energy, and emotional spark that is too often missing from today’s films that bombard us with stupendously spectacular spectacles that feed the eyes but not the heart.

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