“School of Rock” is Rock-Solid

The National Tour of the Tony-award winning Broadway musical “School Of Rock”, based on the hit 2003 film starring Whoopi Goldberg and Jack Black, entertained New Orleans audiences at the Saenger Theatre from October 30 to November 4. Dewey Finn, played by the energetic Merritt David Janes, is a wannabe rock star who manages to find work as a substitute teacher at the prestigious prep school, Horace Green. Gotta pay the rent somehow! The straight-A students are in for a surprise when Dewey ignores the curriculum and teaches the kids how to ROCK. Grier Burke gave a standout performance as Tomika, who goes from being painfully shy to a powerhouse diva. She, along with the other incredibly talented young musicians who played their instruments live onstage, had the audience jamming along in their seats to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s (Phantom of the Opera, Cats) classic rock score.  

This is not your average high school musical. In fact, the kids are in elementary school! Zack (Mystic Inscho, age 9) shreds on guitar. Many of the young performers already have several Broadway credits to their names and their incredible talent did not disappoint. Their on-stage energy was infectious and the New Orleans audience approved wholeheartedly! Webber thought it was important to tell the stories of the kids in the musical version with theatrical songs in addition to the original songs from the film. We learn that each character yearns for their parents to acknowledge them for who they are, but the parents are busy and dismissive and won’t listen. Dewey channels the kids’ frustration into mind-blowing rock performances that carry them to the “Battle of the Bands“, a local competition and Dewey’s chance to redeem himself and live his dream of being a rockstar.

Merritt David Janes (on the left) and Mystic Inscho (on the right) rockin’ out during Zack’s original.

This transformation doesn’t happen so easily. When Dewey took the substitute teacher position at Horace Green, he pretended to be his roommate Ned, an actual teacher who the job was intended for. Once he notices that the supposedly uptight kids have incredible talent, he decides that he will form a new band. As the rehearsals are going on, Zach starts to write his own music. Anxious, he plays his originals for the class and Dewey makes it clear that Zack’s amazing skills would be performed at the Battle of the Bands! Inscho’s performance brought the Saenger audience to their feet and he dominated the stage with his mad guitar skills, sliding on his knees and bending over backward as the music took over and transported him and anyone listening into rock nirvana. They didn’t win the Battle of the Bands, but Dewey is resolute in his newfound purpose and tells the kids that what they did is more special than winning. Change is coming to Horace Green, and Dewey and Rosalie seal it with a kiss. Rock on!

The costumes for “School of Rock” were designed by Anna Louizos, who needed to convey a strong sense of tradition with the school uniforms (think Hogwarts) in contrast to Dewey’s slovenly appearance. It’s easy to imagine that he just grabs whatever shirt is on top of the pile of clothes next to his makeshift bed at home. Dewey’s thrift store, vintage-style shirts with pointy collars are made of cotton so he can be comfortable. The dude sweats a lot! But hey, when you’re inspiring the next generation of rock gods, you can’t worry about a little perspiration.

Louizos came up with the idea of “tracking panels” that could slide and be rotated on stage to break up the monotony of the classroom setting. Trophies, certificates, and awards cover the walls at Horace Green, so the audience can really feel the tension when Dewey begins to disrupt the said school with his freeloading, chaotic ways.

The message of “School Of Rock” is simple but eternal: the empowering force of music changes lives. Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) adapted the book from the Richard Linklater film and Glenn Slater (The Little Mermaid, Sister Act) wrote the lyrics for the musical numbers. Over a two-year collaboration, Webber and his team worked hard to develop the story. The first song he wrote, “If Only You Would Listen”, is sung by the kids to their unresponsive parents. Laurence Conner, the director, explained that the importance of Dewey’s actions in the play comes from that longing to be heard. He is the only one who listens to the kids. Exploring the relationships between the kids and their parents adds to the play because we as an audience were all once kids who needed encouragement and affirmation from our parents. It’s easy to identify with them and even more fun to “Stick It to the Man” and rock out in search of our inner Freddie Mercury or Stevie Nicks.

The best part of “School of Rock” was the culmination of all their work and preparation – the performance of Zack’s song, “School of Rock (Band Practice)” at the Battle of the Bands. The energy on stage was killer! It made you want to go home and pick up your guitar or your drumsticks that have been feeling a little neglected. I honestly do not have any negative criticism for the performance I saw. It was a feel-good evening for the young and young-at-heart. The Broadway version stays true to the film version, with the added musical numbers that really help to develop the characters without detracting from the grunge-tinged rock songs imported from the film.

If you were lucky enough to see “School of Rock” at the Saenger Theatre, what did you think?