When Jack Black played The Anthem a few months ago with his band Tenacious D, he ended the second set with an a cappella rendition of “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath. Seeing as the concert took place in D.C., it was likely an intentional message to those in power a few blocks away. Jack Black was sticking it to the man.
Sticking it to the man is the crucial lesson Dewey Finn (Black) teaches his prep school charges in the movie “School of Rock,” and a theme that permeates the musical “School of Rock” via a recurring motif. It’s the sort of aggressive political statement that musicals generally struggle to convey, and the touring production that’s landed at the National Theatre in Washington fits the bill in that regard.
While the message might get muddled, the entertainment remains, and my 7-year-old daughter—who loves the movie—was perhaps even more thrilled by the stage version. There is an infectious joy in “School of Rock,” and it’s the kids who carry the day by shredding, jamming, jumping and fist-pumping in the face of stuffy teachers and overbearing parents. Their newfound ability to stick it to the man—and own the stage—eventually brings their parents and teachers around.
Much is made of the young actors playing their own instruments. In a bit of “the producer doth protest too much” overkill, the play opens with the disembodied voice of Andrew Lloyd Webber insisting that the kids do indeed play their own instruments. That may be true, particularly in the case of drummer Freddy (Cameron Trueblood), and kudos to the young actors for doing a bang-up job of it, even if the sound coming out of the speakers lacks the prickly electricity of a live rock show.
Led by substitute teacher Dewey Finn (played by Merritt David Janes, who was an ensemble cast member in the original Broadway run), a group of overachieving, over-pressured and misunderstood schoolkids find redemption in the power of rock ’n’ roll. For anyone with an ounce of Led Zeppelin in their soul, it’s a killer premise.
But the shadow of Jack Black looms large over the stage production. The movie was written specifically for his outsized persona and prodigious vocal skills, and it’s easy to believe that Black, who is a rock star in his own right, would like nothing more than to raise up a new generation of AC/DC worshippers. Janes doesn’t have the same verve or vocal chops as Black, and the lines and moves he mimics from the movie only serve to highlight what’s missing.
The musical apes the movie’s plot, moving almost scene-by-scene from curtain up to encore, save for a few additions to illuminate the compassion gap between parents and children, as well as the budding love affair between Finn and Principal Rosalie Mullins.
Mullins (Lexie Dorsett Sharp) has a few scene-stealing moments, including an operatic vocal showcase. Those bits are embroidered with songs, but they’re typical Broadway treacle, not anything resembling the power of raw rock ’n’ roll. The exception may be “I’m Too Hot For You,” a Steel Panther-esque hair metal sendup about a conceited lead singer, but it’s a clever ballad, not a headbanger.
“One great rock show can change the world,” Black says in the movie “School of Rock.” You get the sense he would say the same thing if you ran into him at Wegmans tomorrow. That inherent passion is lacking in the “School of Rock” musical, which feels too safe by half. It makes you wonder what would have happened if the producers had taken their own play’s advice to embrace purposeful aggression and stick it to the man.
Instead, Lloyd Webber, Julian Fellowes and Glenn Slater took a beloved movie (at least in my house) and bloated it with Broadway gas. Stick it with a fork.