The following review is based on the July 24th performance of “School of Rock” when understudy Elysia Jordan played Principal Rosalie Mullins (in place of Lexie Dorsett Sharp) and understudy Bella Fraker played Katie (in place of Theodora Silverman).
The ideal family musical should be rousing, energetic, and provide a grand old time for individuals of all ages. However, not every such musical satisfies all the necessary criteria, as some shows may seem out of date or appeal to a niche audience only. But “School of Rock” hits all the marks, and in rollicking fashion, thanks to its invigoratingly modern script by Julian Fellowes adapted from Mike White’s screenplay from the 2003 film starring Jack Black as Dewey Finn – a struggling musician who furtively takes his friend Ned Schneebly’s teaching offer to impersonate a substitute teacher of fifth graders at an affluent preparatory school, Horace Green. As an unorthodox educator, Finn gets the attention of other teachers and inspires his staid students to come out of their shells to train for a “Battle of the Bands” concert.
Since debuting on Broadway in 2015, the national touring production of “School of Rock” — which can be experienced at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa, CA, through August 5th — is a panoply of rock ‘n’ roll stage prowess that marks Andrew Lloyd Webber’s return to modern-day prominence with a score that rivets and echoes with exuberance. Glenn Slater’s lyrics, too, fire us up, make us laugh, and get us into a frenzy as we would at a sold-out rock concert. Moreover, Laurence Connor’s direction is feverishly entertaining and JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography positions the precocious and virtuoso child performers – portraying Dewey Finn’s students – to look doubtlessly cool and impressive as they play their own instruments to the awestruck delight of the crowd. Not to mention, thanks to costume/scenic designer Anna Louizos, the adults and kids look swanky in their teacher ware and burgundy student uniforms, respectively, and the set transforms into one eye-catching treat after another — including many facets of the wood-paneled school, the ambient Roadhouse bar, and the concert stage.
Rob Colletti is the inimitable Dewey Finn (Merritt David Janes portrays the part during select dates), a musician plagued by his own insouciance and a scarcity of luck, who not only gets kicked out of his own band, No Vacancy, but can’t afford to pay his share of the rent to his roommates – comprised of his best friend, Ned (Matt Bittner), and his domineering girlfriend, Patty (Emily Borromeo).
Nonetheless, despite his carefree indolence, there is an admirable quality to Colletti’s Dewey, who refuses to relinquish his rock dream even if it means not taking anything else too seriously. Colletti, who offers a ceaseless energy, excites the audience with his metal-caliber voice, singing effortlessly with raspy snarls and a smooth upper register that emotes with unbridled passion, as in when he sings of his destiny while scaling amplifiers in “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock.” Similarly, we pump our fists with him during “In the End of Time” and smile when he excellently strums and croons “Math Is a Wonderful Thing.”
Where Colletti really grabs us, though, is when he interacts with the gifted child-star performers, from when he initially lambastes them for having disappointing rock-music influences (e.g. Barbra Streisand), to when he implores them to loosen up, and encourages them to look past the limitations of standardized testing and a conventional school curriculum. As audience members, we absorb Finn’s passionate message to his students (whose childhoods have been divested of them by taxing teachers and parents) by sheer will of Colletti’s performance, which is spiced with bursts of comedy, tenderness, and inventiveness. Certainly, we identify readily with Finn’s spark of inspiration because Colletti is seamlessly naturalistic and genuine in the role.
Elysia Jordan portrays Rosalie so adeptly that if one had not known she was the understudy, the assumption would be that she’s performed it consistently for the past few years. There’s a palpable depth to Jordan’s Rosalie – who is at once prim and properly mature yet also yearns to rediscover not only Stevie Nicks, but her own individuality buried under the bureaucratic demands of her vocation. Jordan is also superlatively endearing as Rosalie even when she admonishes Dewey for being late or is being generally obstinate. Furthermore, and perhaps most notably, when Jordan shows off the beautiful coloratura of her voice while vocalizing in “Queen of the Night,” and belts with an unyielding desire to find the past that eluded her character during “Where Did the Rock Go?”, we can’t help but bask in the success of her triumphant performance.
Matt Bittner is Ned, who seemingly gives up his musical aspirations, to be domesticated by his shrewish girlfriend, Patty, portrayed by Emily Borromeo. Bittner’s Ned represents an almost unrealized potential, who needs Finn’s crucible of courage, no matter how accidental or unethical, to be shown that the impossible can be done. Bittner is tremendous at conveying his inner conflict and teeter-tottering allegiance between his best friend and significant other. Borromeo, too, plays her part very well as the controlling love interest, adding an intriguing layer of drama, as one who is swayed so much by her own motivations that she fails to give the benefit of the doubt even when it’s warranted.
Needless to say, as wonderful as the adults are — including Deidre Lang, who charismatically portrays Ms. Sheinkopf — it is the amazing children who ultimately win the audience members’ hearts with their undeniable creative expression as Dewey’s students. They make up strong and independent elements among an interconnected genius that bowls over with not only top-notch acting/comedic chops, but highly advanced musical proficiency. Leading her peers as the band manager is Iara Nemirovsky’s Summer Hathaway, a lovable goody two-shoes and gold-star seeker who moralistically questions authority and is empowered by a golden voice that is pitch-perfect, particularly during “Time to Play.” Additionally, Grier Burke is a beacon of heartwarming light as the timid Tomika who sheds the sheath of her insecurities to soar vocally with an affecting version of “Amazing Grace” and the emotionally resonant reprise of “If Only You Would Listen.”
Last, but not least, Vincent Molden (Zack) proudly represents all the indisputably cool redheads in the world with electrifying guitar savvy and an aplomb rock-star presence to match, uncannily defying his youth. Theo Mitchell-Penner (Lawrence) is mind-blowingly awesome as a charismatic keyboard wizard who might single-handedly bring back the synth sounds of the ’80s. Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton (Freddy) drums with the joy of a Buddy Rich and the unmitigated fervency of a Dave Grohl or Lars Ulrich. Understudy Bella Fraker (Katie) demonstrates that she can courageously step up to home plate and deliver a home run in the form of groovy bass lines any time she’s called upon. And Huxley Westemeier’s sweet performance as Billy shows us that every group needs a costumer/seamstress — because rock ‘n’ roll begins with an uncompromising and appropriately rebellious fashion sense.
The brilliant Cameron Trueblood, Gabriella Uhl, Natalia Bingham, Olivia Bucknor, Carson Hodges, Theodora Silverman, Alyssa Emily Marvin, Jack Suarez Kimmel, and Jesse Sparks are the other essential members of the “School of Rock” band – amounting to a production that receives the highest possible recommendation. It is unquestionably more than just a musical; it is a concert that features an astounding assemblage of sheer skill that coalesces into an exhilarating experience that will have you singing along, bobbing your heads, and rocking out to joyous numbers like “You’re in the Band,” “Stick It to the Man,” and more!