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School of Rock

by Julie Houghton

A musical titled School of Rock might seem an unusual show to review for a classical music website.

Its style is mostly rock but with some lovely close harmony work in the song “Alma Mater”. And it is solely about the power of music to light up people’s lives—and what better place to start than with a show that has 12 children at its core. But if you are a purist classical music lover, this might not be the show for you. If your tastes are eclectic, you will have a great night at the theatre.

For anyone not familiar with the story from the film of the same name, it’s about wannabe rapidly ageing rock guitarist Dewey Finn (Brent Hill), who simply lives for his music. But sadly, as many of us in the industry know, it doesn’t always cover the rent, and his straitlaced housemates are insisting that he pay his share.

So what to do? You take a phone call with an offer of substitute teaching work, meant for your housemate, you take the job, impersonate your mate Ned, and off you go to nurture the young minds of posh prep school Horace Green, where their graduates go to Harvard or Yale, or if it’s a really bad year, to Cornell University! (Anyone familiar with the US tertiary education system will chuckle at that line.)

Of course, he knows nothing about teaching but everything about music, so soon hijacks the curriculum to introduce his talented musical students to the world of rock music, and the band School of Rock is born.

This musical version isn’t written by an obscure creative team – the composer is Andrew Lloyd Webber, perhaps the most famous music theatre composer in the world, and the book is by Julian Fellowes. (Remember the television series Downton Abbey? That’s a Julian Fellowes creation!)

So this show has an impressive theatrical pedigree and the story itself is a total heart warmer – you care about every character and want the best for them. What is also interesting is that these kids are materially rich, but yearn for parents to listen to them, preferably by getting off their phones and indulging in some face-to-face contact!

These kids are a constrained and uptight lot, and Dewey unleashes their creativity and their personalities, forming a close and caring relationship after his initial rocky start. And the children respond in kind. Eventually their parents also see the light and take the time to realize and show their love for their talented kids.

We are told at the beginning that the 12-member class of youngsters does play their instruments on stage, so that is a joy to watch.

What kept popping into my mind while watching this show, is that it gives the same message given by the dearly loved and recently departed music icon Richard Gill. Both Richard and School of Rock are all about the essential part music plays in our lives, and both the show and Richard are passionate about sharing music.

And the uptight characters don’t stop at the children – Amy Lehpamer does a fine job as the strict principal, Rosalie Mullins, who hides a secret musical passion for Stevie Nicks of iconic band Fleetwood Mac.

But the show makes or breaks on the character of Dewey, and Brent Hill is simply brilliant. He easily makes the transition from grungy jokester to the real person who inspires and cares about his students.  Most music theatre heroes are buff or blonde or both. Not this time – Hill is never likely to grace the cover of a fitness magazine. He is real, he is a little on the tubby side, and we love him for it because he is one of us.

All the kids fit their roles well, although some sing better than others. On opening night there was one standout singer, Chihana Perera as Tomika, who sang a truly beautiful a capella version of “Amazing Grace”.

Musically, the stand out track is “Stick it to the Man”, and the other tracks work well within the musical but are not especially memorable. But it doesn’t matter – this show has a huge heart and a wonderful inspiring story. The most important thing is that there were so many children in the audience, so it’s the perfect show to turn any junior non-theatre goers into music theatre lovers. And that has to be a good thing!

Rock on!

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