Dewey from School of Rock and Maria from The Sound of Music have a few things in common.
Go with me on this.
Both are initially perceived as problematic by the people around them.
Both find themselves with a job where they are entrusted with the care of children who are initially resistant their methods.
Both also face parental resistance regarding said children.
And both tap into the musical talent of those kids.
What they don’t have in common, as evidenced by the national tour of School of Rock (at Clowes Hall through Feb. 3) are stakes. The Sound of Music not only was about Maria’s quest for her true calling and a father’s reconnecting with his children, it was also about appeasement of a rising fascist government. And bravery in the face of that force.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that School of Rock should have including Dewey fighting Nazis. But there’s little more here, arc-wise, than a schlumpy attention-hog guitarist who wants to rock, lies his way into a teaching gig, and scraps the school’s lesson plans to satisfy his own limitations.
Yes, he inspires some kids along the way. And, yes, those kids do rock out in ways the von Trapp tribe couldn’t dream of. But Dewey isn’t pulling a Dead Poets Society here. And he doesn’t learn anything in the process.
Where it could have notched up—in Dewey’s speech to the parents—School of Rock opts for lameness. At this crucial moment, Dewey doesn’t say “Hey, you’re kids are great and it doesn’t matter if they become stars or not. Music matters and it matters to them and that’s important.”
Instead, he talks about how great they are—one is going to be the next Hendrix—and paints a picture of inevitable rock stardom. Is it really noble to tell a class full of elementary school basketball players that they are all going to be the next Michael Jordan? No, it’s irresponsible and selfish.
This production isn’t helped by its Dewey (Merritt David Janes) who dances back and forth on both sides of the line that separates Obnoxious Guy You Want To Hang Out With Because He’s Spontaneous and Fun from Obnoxious Guy You Want to Avoid Because He’s Desperate for Attention And Not Very Funny.
That’s not to say there aren’t pleasures here. It is, mercifully, a fully professional production with sets, costumes, and, for the most part, a cast worthy of the “Broadway” in the Broadway in Indianapolis moniker for the series.
As a pre-curtain recorded message from composer Andrew Lloyd Webber states, these kids do play their own instruments on stage—albeit sweetened by the pit orchestra. And the raucous choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter never slips into overt slickness, feeling more Spring Awakening than 42nd Street.
While the traditional book songs feel like placeholders, there’s fun in the score when the kids get to play. “Stick It to the Man” is a worthy rebel anthem and the title song does sound, in a good way, like it could have been written by a kid.
And it shows some restraint by avoiding having its uptight school principal (Lexie Dorsett Sharp) not actually let her hair down when she ultimately lets her hair down (the less said about the female characters here the better—since the show doesn’t care much about them anyway).
It’s a notch above such opportunistic movies-to-stage transfers as Fame, Footloose, Flashdance, and Dirty Dancing (all of which plagued past seasons), but it doesn’t quite reach even the level of Legally Blonde and Sister Act.
School of Rock did, however, make me want to revisit the film—one I really enjoyed but haven’t seen in a decade or so. An oddity in the Richard Linklater directorial canon and a bright spot in Jack Black’s acting career, I recall it as one of those rare films that doesn’t aim particularly high but squarely hits its target.
For the record, I’d put My Cousin Vinnie and Miss Congeniality in that same bucket—and I’m in no hurry to see either turned into a stage musical.