Wednesday, November 10, 2021

School of Rock – a lesson in musical theatre, and a treat to boot (Grand Opera House until Saturday 13 November)

The renovated Grand Opera House has been chock-a-block with touring musical stage adaptations of films since it reopened. Some benefit from – or even require – knowledge and appreciation of the original film. But this week’s treat works as a standalone piece: the touring production of School of Rock is probably the best such work this season.

Dewey Finn has been turfed out of his band. He kips in an old mate Ned Schneebly’s house, and intercepts a phone call offering Ned some substitute teaching work in a rarefied prep school. And so to pay the rent, Dewey becomes Ned, the largest child in the classroom, a total misfit until he discovers the musical talent surrounding him. And so begins a rocky journey to prove their juvenile brilliance in a local band competition.

There are so many reasons to love School of Rock.

The comedy script from Jullian Fellowes is strong, and the delivery on the back of Laurence Connor’s direction does not disappoint. The plot has moments of jeopardy, but there’s no attempt – and no need – to make them painful or overly serious. This is proper light entertainment.

Dewey/Ned is out of his depth and infantile. But he has passion to share, and a loveable distain for authority. Right from his first moments on stage, Jake Sharp fills the larger-than-life character’s boots. You can see how the young cast feed of his energy.

Rebecca Lock’s amazing vocals inject power and presence into school principal Rosalie Mullans, along with the delightful gradual unravelling of her uptight boss persona into a more playful figure as the show heads towards its raucous end.

The choreography is remarkably precise, with 12 children setting the standard early on slamming their desks shut and marching in perfect time. Their first musical scene shows off their classical talent, but it’s when they pick up the rock instruments that the 11–13 year olds really astound. When they’re playing on stage, the audience are hearing the kids, not the musicians in the pit. And they’re good.

Earlier moments of note include timid Tomika’s rendition of Amazing Grace and Rosalie’s journey of self-rediscovery in the bar with Dewey. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music gives the melodies and arrangements an extra element of hummability.

But for me, what makes School of Rock a great show is the wave of emotion that accompanies the reprise of If Only You Would Listen at the turning point of the second act. As the kids plead with the distraught Dewey, seeing past the deception that so annoys the adults, the feeling of redemption and acceptance is powerful. So many musical adaptations don’t succeed in creating on-stage bonds that transcend the fictional story and catch audience members in the moment. Having a dozen youngsters on stage certainly helps pull those heart strings, but it’s the quality of the connections they create that seals the deal.

The set has its own choreography, sliding in on rails, twisting panels, a turntable stage, and sofas and beds that zoom in from the depths of the back of the stage. Extra lighting trusses dramatically emerge for the finale. It’s a visual treat. And an enormous sound array and extra subs on the floor and flown from the ceiling to boost the circles makes sure the audience hear every beat.

Whether you’ve seen the film or not, the stage version of School of Rock makes sense. From beginning to end, it’s a lesson in how to produce great musical theatre. School of Rock’s run in the Grand Opera House, Belfast continues until Saturday 13 November.

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Rebecca Lock said...

Hi Alan! What a gorgeous review! Thankyou so much for your support of the show. Can I just flag that you’ve posted pictures of Laura Tebbutt as Miss Mullins. There are many available press shots of myself & Jake Sharp. It’s not really very fair on Laura. So can we get them swapped? Best wishes, Rebecca Lock xx

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Rebecca - replaced the two shots from marketing pack with one sourced elsewhere that looks more like you! Hope the tour's going well.