There can always be the danger when a classic movie turns into a stage show that you just can’t get the original star out of your mind.
Well, don’t worry as there wasn’t a moment you thought of Jack Black as gifted physical comic Jake Sharp’s big voice and easy charm was perfect for broke wannabe rock god Dewey Finn who pretends to be a substitute teacher in a posh elementary school.
In the absence of any teaching ability – or qualification – he focuses on his undying belief in the redemptive powers of rock and roll to form a group to take part in an adult battle of the bands. The gag is that the band is his class of privileged kids who are having their very souls sucked out of them.
Step forward the kids in the band who proved to be quite the most talented group of young performers I’ve seen in this building. They sang and acted strongly given they were barely out of junior school, and as the show’s composer Andrew Lloyd Webber noted some of them play their instruments live too.
It’s rare that experienced adult performers are so outgunned by newcomers, but such is power and charm of the band the grown ups were very much reduced to supporting roles. In fact, one or two of the weaker numbers seem designed just to give the large group of adults something to do.
Some might have been surprised Lord Lloyd Webber could compose such big guitar driven numbers, but he did start his career in rock musicals with Tim Rice, so he has a muscle memory of what works dynamically. This was a labour of love for the musical theatre legend who seemed rejuvenated as a composer, so maybe it’s not only the kids who benefited from manchild Dewey’s unwavering faith in rock and roll.
Wisely for the book Lloyd Webber recruited his fellow peer and Downton creator Julian Fellowes, who pretty much follows the plot of the film, but adds a few more gags – including a topical one about that slap – and Sharp had great fun with the jokes bouncing off the kids who he had great chemistry with.
Stick It to the Man was a real showstopper and great fun if you can get past the delicious irony of two Tory peers urging us to overthrow the establishment. You’re in the Band and School of Rock allowed Sharp and his junior stars to let rip, supported all the way by a top-class live band under the direction of Michael Riley.
All the young ensemble were believable, especially Evie Marner as a wonderfully bossy class nerd Summer, and Tia Issac impressed standing alone on this big stage belting out an acapella Amazing Grace as shy Tomeka finally found her voice.
Joseph Sheppard gamely struck all the rock god poses as lead guitarist Zack, Oliver Forde offered some great flourishes on keys that would have made Lloyd Webber proud, Effie Lennon Ballard kept it tight on bass and Eva McGrath was in perfect time on the drums to the point you believed they could actually win a real battle of the bands.
This big hearted and slick musical about the power of rock to change lives and give us hope in the worst of times couldn’t have come at a better time for an audience who had clearly got the message as they sprang to their feet to applaud the precocious performers.
School of Rock is at Leeds Grand Theatre until Saturday 9th April and then touring. To book https://leedsheritagetheatres.com
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 4th April 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★