REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★
It was the 1970s when Andrew Lloyd Webber (with lyricist Tim Rice) created his revered rock operas that remain popular today on stages around the world.
After the 1970s, it wasn’t until December 2015 that theatregoers had their next encounter with a rock-flavoured Lloyd Webber musical, which came in the form of School of Rock. Based on the 2003 film that starred Jack Black as a wannabe rock star, the musical became a Broadway and West End hit. The Australasian production opened last October in Melbourne and is now playing at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre.
Dewey Finn (Brent Hill) is unemployed and gets the chance to earn money by posing as a teacher at an expensive private school. Rather than teaching his young students their regular curriculum (a job for which he’s obviously unqualified), he hatches a plan to turn the class of talented musicians into a band, to have them compete in a local ‘Battle of the Bands’ competition and to help him fulfil his own rock ‘n’ roll dreams.
Of course, the conformist school principal Rosalie Mullins (Amy Lehpamer) is laser-focused on ensuring her students receive the first-class education for which their helicopter parents are paying handsomely and makes clear she has no time for unorthodox teaching methods nor any activity diverting class time away from what’s apparently essential. So, Finn must ensure his band rehearsals go undetected.
With music by Lloyd Webber, a book by Julian Fellowes (creator and co-writer of Downton Abbey) and lyrics by Glenn Slater (a three-time Tony nominee, who also worked on Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies), School of Rock is feel-good rock meets the musical. The book is simple but the journey we’re taken on is nevertheless highly entertaining and there are insights about the need for young children to be heard by their elders and even how a child can grow as a person through their even unconventional educational experiences. Musically, it may not be of the same ilk as Lloyd Webber’s 1970s rock operas, but it has its fair share of hummable melodies (be warned – the refrain for Act 1 closer ‘Stick it to the man’ will remain stubbornly in your head at interval). Meanwhile, Laurence O’Connor’s tight direction ensures the show moves along at a cracking pace.
On the design front, Anna Louizos’s sets and costumes are terrific and Natasha Katz’s lighting helps to generate electric energy in bigger numbers.
But the best thing about School of Rock is the opportunity to witness the remarkable talents of its younger cast members. Twelve children from ages 9 to 12 make up the children’s cast for the Sydney season of School of Rock and, as we’re told as the lights go down at the start of the show, each young performer in the band is actually playing their instrument. On opening night, guitarist Zane Blumeris, bassist Cherami Mya Remulta, keyboard player Jude Hyland and drummer Cooper Alexis all floored the audience with their musicianship, while lead vocalist Sabina Felias earned her own cheers. And playing the smart and studious Summer, Deeanna Cheong Foo was a standout. As well as the kids, there’s a group of adult musicians in the pit, led by musical director Laura Tipoki, who assist in generating a voluminous concert-like vibe.
The adult cast, too, is impressive, led by Hill, who has already received a Helpmann Award for Best Actor in a Musical for this performance. Simply put, he is perfect for the role; not only does he have the rock tenor to pull it off vocally, but he brings immense energy and presence to his portrayal and innate likeability (despite Finn’s shortcomings). Taking on the role is a sizeable charge for any performer (so much so that Hill shares the role with Joe Kosky) but it’s clear from the outset that Hill is up to the task.
Lehpamer is one of the best leading women in musical theatre in Australia and gives a performance befitting of that status, playing the uptight but well-meaning school principal who does some learning of her own along the way. Fittingly, there’s a palpable sense in her portrayal of Rosalie of a woman overthinking each move to ensure adherence to the expectations of the parents and school staff. And when it comes time for her Act 2 solo, ‘Where did the rock go’, Lehpamer’s delivery is gutsy and powerful.
School of Rock won’t change the world, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun and a great night out for theatregoers from 8 to 80. It’s also exciting to have an introduction to the next generation of talent who’ll ensure Australian stages are in capable hands for years to come.
Photo credit: Matthew Murphy
SCHOOL OF ROCK – SYDNEY SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Capitol Theatre
Season: Playing now until 16 February 2020
Wednesdays: 1pm and 7pm
Thursdays: 7:30pm (14 – 28 November) / 7pm (from 5 December)
Fridays: 7:30pm (15 – 29 November) / 7pm (from 6 – 27 December)
Special Summer Holidays Friday matinees on 3, 10, 17 and 24 January at 1pm
Saturdays: 2pm and 7:30pm
Sundays: 1pm and 6pm
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes (including a 20-minute intermission)
For more details (including Adelaide season details), head to au.schoolofrockthemusical.com