REVIEW: School of Rock – a commitment to excellence that shines throughout

The cast of School of Rock UK Tour – Photo Paul Coltas

Venue: The Alexandra, Birmingham

Performance Date: 31 January 2022

Reviewer: Alex Birch

Star Rating: ★★★★★

Remember School of Rock? In 2003, almost twenty years ago, the Hollywood comedy film helmed by a youthful Jack Black was an international box office hit. Family-friendly without being saccharine, it’s a tale of redemption centred around Dewey Finn, a washed-out rock musician who is so behind on rent that he lies his way into a job at an elite prep school as a substitute teacher, “Mr. Schneebly” — and in the process transforms the lives of the kids he teaches through his passion for rock music.

School of Rock’s stage adaptation had its debut on Broadway back in 2016 and has since toured successfully around the world. This February the show comes to Birmingham’s Alexandra, and what a treat it is. Whether or not you’ve seen the film on which School of Rock: The Musical is based, this production is funny, smart, and has something for (almost) everyone (note that eight is the recommended minimum age for theatre-goers, presumably due to a bit of risqué humour and some drug references).

With music from the legendary composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Glenn Slater, School of Rock: The Musical is an adaptation to be proud of. The show begins in rock ‘n’ roll fashion with a performance from Dewey Finn (Jake Sharp) and his band, No Vacancy, of “I’m Too Hot For You”, an original song written for the Broadway musical that channels the energy of so-bad-it’s-good 2000s earworms (think: “Teenage Dirtbag”).

Finn is promptly discharged from the band, his bandmates convinced that he is holding back their success. Then the audience is introduced to Dewey Finn’s flatmate, Ned Schneebly (Matthew Rowland), and his insufferable girlfriend, Patty Di Marco (Amy Oxley). Schneebly is the archetypal gawky geek, and his characterisation here is arguably superior to School of Rock’s big-screen counterpart. Despite the stereotypical nature of the character, more is done in this adaptation to convey the importance of Dewey and Ned’s bond. Early on, Ned and Dewey are seen rocking out together on Guitar Hero while Ned’s girlfriend is out on a run. She returns and is horrified. In the film, this conflict is not made so explicit, which might lead a viewer to ask why on earth Ned puts up with Dewey, a boorish man who doesn’t pay his share of the rent.

A slight drawback of this attention to nuance is that for a little while, one may wonder whether this is really the School of Rock that audiences know and love at all. But these doubts are dispensed with when Dewey gets into the classroom.

Jake Sharp has big shoes to fill, with the character of Dewey Finn synonymous with Jack Black in the eyes of many, but he does a terrific job of playing the lovable, musically gifted oaf. He throws himself around the stage with Dewey Finn’s characteristic chaotic energy, sings impeccably, and delivers some of the funniest lines in the show as he bumbles around the classroom and wins the hearts of not only the children he teaches at Horace Green but the staff, too.

School of Rock’s original source material has aged well enough to not need updating, but the people behind this adaptation were clearly not content with ‘good’ or even ‘great’: there is a commitment to excellence that shines throughout. For example, when Dewey Finn lectures his class about ‘the man’ (a recurring theme in the story is ‘sticking it to the man’, which Finn argues is the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll), he drops a reference to Boris Johnson’s ongoing party scandal which catches the audience off guard and makes the show feel delightfully current (not to mention genuinely subversive).

Music is of course central to School of Rock, and the adaptation caters to a more diverse range of tastes than the film. The outstanding Rebecca Lock performs as uptight headmistress Rosalie Mullins, whose operatic talents are one of the most memorable parts of the show. Even people who hate rock music can find pleasure here. Not only are the adult performers fantastic, but the children are genuinely outstanding and surely have bright futures ahead of them. School of Rock will leave a big smile on your face.

Runs until: 05 February 2022 at The Alex, and on Tour

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