Musicals with the word “Rock” in their title always scare me a little bit. The nights before are filled with terrorising dreams of shaking uncomfortably in my seat and walking out with ear drums that are more like ear flaps by the end. You can imagine my unease then when a long day at university was to be wrapped up with an evening in the School of Rock.
To say I was pleasantly surprised by what ensued would be a massive understatement. In all these years of attending musicals in Manchester, the only other musical that was as delightful, if not more, was Matilda.
Personally, I find London and New York quite unenviable for the most part. After all, who would want to live in a city where a fortune gets you a shoe box at most to live in and you have to breathe the same air as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. Despite that, I have to concede to the ability of the two cities to turn me green with envy (better people than the environment, right?) by playing permanent host to such fine musicals such as the one I had the pleasure of watching on the 4th of January. Then again, School of Rock does feature an all-star team of writers and musicians. For starters, the script is written by Julian Fellowes, the fellow who created Downton Abbey and then immediately exchanged Harris Tweeds for some Mick Jagger-esque leather pants to bring us this. In case that doesn’t get you excited enough, the music is composed by the grand old doyen of musical theatre on both sides of the Atlantic, Andrew Lloyd Webber.
In case you have been living under Rock (sorry, couldn’t resist, but also, it’s a terrific place to be!), the story of this musical revolves around impostor teacher but dedicated rocker, Dewey Finn, and his class of prep school kids who find expression for their feelings in rock music. It’s a musical that remains diligently committed to the idea — if you can’t find words to express it, sing it, and when the emotion is too overwhelming for singing, dance it. And it does all this while containing a cast of adorable and supremely talented children, without overdoing the sweetness and the sentimentality to the point where it becomes off-putting.
The musical has several things going for it, but it does come across as inconsistent in places. It starts off timidly but I can’t complain about that; it helped preserve my hearing for the witty and sassy dialogues. It is very topical for sure. In a scene that features Dewey Finn (played by the energetic Alex Tomkins, who came across as reticent initially but settled in well) asking his students about what makes them angry, we hear anger about issues ranging from unrealistic body image expectations on social media, environmental damage to the poisoning of political discourse. If one had to imagine a class full of Greta Thunbergs, this one wouldn’t be too far off the mark.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel this scene was a missed opportunity. I don’t have many complaints about this performance, but I certainly have one here. In a show that is meant to be about questioning the status quo (much like the pioneers of rock did in the 60s) and giving voice to people we think to be too naive to be concerned about the world, this scene comes across as antithetical to its initial commitment. In buzzing past these dialogues at lightning speed and papering over them with humour, it glosses over the issues raised instead of letting them sink in amongst the adults and precocious kids in the audience. Having said that, there are moments when it reinforces its commitment to challenging norms while ensuring the humour doesn’t distract. Most notably, this occurs when Summer (played by the effervescent Florrie May Wilkinson) asks Mr. Finn (pretending to be Mr. Schneebly) why it is “Stick it to the Man” and not The Woman and brings up the gender pay disparity in the line, “She probably earns 70c to the dollar”. Hopefully, future adaptations can take more away from a scene like this.
In a similar vein of inconsistency, the casting and the characters, while belonging to various ethnic backgrounds on the surface, come across as a mere nod to diversity rather than a genuine inculcation when one considers who occupied the most prominent roles. Maybe this is just me quibbling.
But that’s where my complaints end.
The children — Eva McGrath as the drummer Freddy, Marikit Akiwumi as the bassist Katie, Oliver Forde as the keyboardist Lawrence, Jospeh Sheppard as Zack the lead guitarist, Riotafari Garden as James the bouncer, Elodie Salmon and Kyla Robinson as Sophie and Shonelle the backup singers, Wilf Cooper as Billy the glitter loving, sassy stylist, Caelan Washington as Mason the techie, Inez Danielak as Sophie the roadie and of course the standout act, the Beyonce-esque Souparnika Nair as Tomika with the astounding vocals — are undoubtably the stars of the show. Even though the adult cast features the likes of Rebecca Lock (who played Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera on West End) as Principal Mullins and who is able to break into an amazing rendition of Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria, the kids, with their live rock performance (they supposedly play the instruments themselves in addition to the singing) steal the limelight by a country mile as they holler, skip, run, tiptoe and rock across Anna Louizos compact yet well designed sets.
School of Rock, at the end of the day, is a feel-good musical for the entire family, and it does that job quite well by mixing humour with talented singing and dancing that starts off slowly at first and then has you off your seat by the end with its energy. One almost wishes there was enough space in the aisles to channel that energy and bounce up and down with fervour just like the kids do in the finale.
Oh, and did I mention, it remains gentle on your ears throughout!?