There is a reason why, thanks to TV re-runs, child star Shirley Temple, who appeared in numerous films in the 1930s, is still popular today. It is always such a special pleasure to witness a talented child performer singing, dancing and acting with poise and ease. Such was the case in seeing the performances of the16 children of elementary-school age who are in the cast of “School of Rock – The Musical,” based on the 2003 hit film of the same title. I attended opening night of the Broadway in Indianapolis run on Tuesday at Clowes Memorial Hall on the campus of Butler University.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, who created scores for 13 musicals, including “Cats,” “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Evita,” composed the music for “School of Rock,” with lyrics by Glenn Slater, and book by Julian Fellowes. The musical, which opened on Broadway in 2015, tells a funny and utterly charming story about Dewey Finn, who yearns to be a rock star, but achieves loser status instead. He is behind on his rent, so he poses as a substitute teacher at a posh prep school to make money. There, he transforms bright, brainy students into an ass-kicking, raucous rock band and enters them in a battle of the bands. Along the way, he falls in love with the school’s straight-arrow principal, whom he helps to rediscover her free-spirited alter-ego.
Merritt David James, who plays the Jack Black character, Dewey in the film version, excelled as the uncouth, irreverent, devil-may-care rock ‘n’ roll mentor to the kids. Though he tries to act otherwise, he clearly has a soft spot in his heart for his young charges, some of whom he helps overcome their insecurities and inadequacies. Putting his own stamp on the character, James gave both a powerful acting and vocal performance and connected with the audience through his portrayal of the seemingly failed, but zany and lovable goofball Dewey, with a passion for rock ‘n’ roll, who becomes an unlikely role model.
Prior to curtain , an announcer informed the audience that among the most frequently asked questions about the show is “Do the kids in the band play their instruments themselves?” The answer is yes, they did and boy, did they ever. Spectacular musicians all, they included Mystic Inscho who played lead guitar, Leanne Parks on bass, Cameron Trueblood who was the drummer and Theo Mitchell-Penner on keyboard. The band’s back-up singers, two of whom were Alyssa Emily Marvin and Arianna Pereira and the lead singer Tomika, played by Grier Burke who sang an a capella rendition of “Amazing Grace” were all impressive. Also shining was Sami Bray who played the band’s spunky manager and Sammy Dell, the group’s costume designer
Standing out was Lexie Dorsett Sharp for her formidable performance as rigid, no-nonsense principal Rosalie Mullins, who secretly loves rock ‘n’ roll, especially Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, and longs to be the carefree person she once was. In an early scene, her character is seen teaching a classical piece in an orchestra class. It was evident that Sharp has a trained operatic voice. During the course of the show, it became clear that her versatile voice could also belt out rock ‘n’ roll with the best of them in a singing and acting performance that was powerful.
The unbridled joy and exhilaration exhibited by the show’s young prodigies, coupled with those same qualities inherent in Lloyd Webber’s ebullient score, makes for uplifting entertainment with a positive message about how the enthusiasm of one person for what he does can inspire everyone around him to do their best. There were many families with kids in attendance and I suspect the show made for lots of discussion on their way home about following one’s passion, but also how rock ‘n’ roll can keep one feeling youthful.
“School of Rock – The Musical” plays Clowes Memorial Hall through February 3. Remaining performances are Thursday evening at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday evening at 8:00 p.m., Saturday matinee at 2:00 p.m., Sunday matinee at 1:00 p.m., and Sunday evening at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are available at Clowes Memorial Hall, Old National Centre Ticket Office, online at BroadwayinIndianapolis.com, or by phone at 1-800-982-2787.