Two decades before The White Lotus became the toast of prestige TV, creator Mike White had his big Hollywood breakthrough as screenwriter and co-star of the Jack Black musical comedy School of Rock, directed by the great Richard Linklater. When the film was given its inevitable Broadway adaptation, Andrew Lloyd Webber signed on to contribute new music.
That’s quite a pedigree for a breezy, feel-good musical that draws heavily on the anarchist spirit of 1980s Bill Murray films. (If you were to describe it as Stripes at a prep school, I might reply, “That’s the fact, Jack!”) Emerging from this creative brew and a plume of dry-ice smoke, the production that premiered Friday night at the Paramount Theatre is a high-spirited, heartwarming crowd-pleaser.
The dramatic stakes, mind you, are pretty much non-existent, with the first act even ending on a triumphantly jolly note. Sure, lovable loser Dewey (Nick Druzbanski, amiably channelling Black) has been kicked out of his band, his roommate’s girlfriend wants to give him the boot for non-payment of rent and the principal (Veronica Garza, amiably channelling Joan Cusack while showcasing a powerful singing voice) of the posh private school where he’s substitute teaching using false credentials has suspicions.
But these beats play out with the seriousness of a Bewitched episode where nosy Mrs. Kravitz is finally going to reveal to the world that Sabrina is a witch! In other words, we’re watching an extended sitcom of the old-fashioned variety, albeit one that’s quite well-directed by Trent Stork, well-choreographed by Isaiah Silvia-Chandley and well-performed by Druzbanski, Garza and a charming cast of singing, dancing and instrument-playing adolescents who take the audience on an entertaining journey to the top of Mount Rock.
The budding romance between Dewey and the principal, with an assist from Stevie Nicks, is a sweet treat. The kids are uniformly delightful. And several of the songs are bonafide ear worms, especially pint-sized punk anthem “Stick It to the Man,” which doesn’t wear out its welcome even on its third appearance. The young musicians, playing guitar, bass, keys and drums live, do quite a credible job of it, and they’re ably backed by the seven-piece Paramount band in the pit.
And to be fair to the book, there are real emotional stakes lurking just outside of the main storyline, as the kids all feel their parents don’t listen to them, don’t truly see them and don’t give them agency to pursue their own dreams.
Perhaps the power of rock will set things right.
School of Rock runs through June 4 at the Paramount Theatre.
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Liz Lauren