After getting kicked out of his band, singer-guitarist Dewey Finn sees his dreams of rock ‘n’ roll stardom slowly slipping away. He’s sleeping on his best friend Ned’s couch and finds it hard to hold down a job. After answering a phone call with a job offer meant for Ned, Dewey pretends to be a substitute teacher at a distinguished prep school to make what he thinks will be some easy money. When he discovers the musical talent in his new classroom, he decides to transform a bunch of middle schoolers into an incredible rock band, just in time to compete against his former band at an upcoming competition.
I’ve been a fan of the original movie since its theatrical release, and it remains frequently quoted by myself and members of my family. It’s difficult to think of “School of Rock” and not immediately think of its star, the larger-than-life Jack Black. Written by filmmaker Mike White specifically for Black, “School of Rock” was a star-making vehicle. Could a stage version of the same story stand without his presence?
I’m pleased to say that the answer is “yes.” Nick Druzbanski (Dewey Finn) is not doing a Jack Black impersonation and this show is all the better for it. Yes, Dewey is lying to a bunch of people, including children, but with a reassuring, open-hearted Druzbanski at the helm, the deception almost feels like it’s for the best, or at the very least, forgivable. This wouldn’t be possible if the bond that the talented cast of children have clearly formed with Druzbanski wasn’t on full display. It’s what makes the show work.
The kids are amazing and all sound great, whether their instrument is a guitar, bass, keyboard, drum set, or their own voice. The performances are tight—each actor has stand-out moments, but I have to mention Omi Lichtenstein as no-nonsense, authoritative Summer and Kayla Norris (Tomika), whose a cappella goosebump-giving rendition of “Amazing Grace” stunned the audience into silence. In addition, the vocally rich Veronica Garza, as seemingly uptight Principal Rosalie Mullins, is a delight, as is the scene-stealing Mary Robin Roth (Ms. Sheinkopf).
Kudos to the director, stage managers, and entire team for their work on this show. The audience is transported between grimy dive bars and music venues to the hallowed halls and classrooms of Horace Green Prep without a hitch, thanks to a hard-working production team that includes scenic designer Michelle Lilly, lighting designer Greg Hofmann, projection designer Mike Tutaj, and sound designer Adam Rosenthal.
With the exception of a few Andrew Lloyd Webber and Glenn Slater songs created for this show, particularly “You’re in the Band” and “Stick It to the Man,” the best music remains that written for the movie, now fleshed-out so that everyone shines, including ensemble and musicians (led by music director and conductor Kory Danielson). When combined with Isaiah Silvia-Chandley’s energetic choreography, the show feels like a live concert, music loud and drum-heavy.
There’s more than enough of the movie in the show’s book to keep superfans happy as well as entertain audiences who aren’t familiar with the source material. Paramount’s production rocks all on its own.
“School of Rock” at Paramount Theatre, 23 East Galena Boulevard, Aurora, (630)896-6666, paramountaurora.com, $28-$79. Through June 4.