Sunday, 11 November 2018

REVIEW: School of Rock by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Glenn Slater & Julian Fellowes

Brent Hill as Dewey Finn with child cast in School of Rock

Based on the 2003 film starring Jack Black and Joan Cusack, School of Rock the musical follows the same basic premise – after being kicked out of his current band, Dewey Finn takes on the name of his teacher friend, Ned Schneebly, and gets a job at a private school. There, instead of educating the students in English, Math or History, he forms a band with the children so he can compete in the Battle of the Bands against his old band mates.

Dewey (Brent Hill) is a bit of a loser, but he’s a free spirit, who loves rock and roll so much that he wants to teach his students to find their voices, embrace their talent and as all edgy rock musicians must do in rebellion – he teaches them to “Stick It to the Man”. The villain of the piece is The Establishment, the private school they attend – Horace Green Prep. The principal, Rosalie Mullins (Amy Lehpamer), is a stickler for the rules and is uptight, both of which Dewey abhors, of course.

It’s a gender reversal on The Sound of Music; instead of a headstrong nun teaching the children of the uptight Captain Von Trapp to sing, rebel Dewey teaches the children of Roz’s private school to rock the status quo.

Unfortunately, School of Rock doesn’t have many memorable songs. “Stick it to the Man” is catchy enough, working as the Act I finale and reprised at the end. Roz’s solo “Where Did the Rock Go?” gives Lehpamer a chance to shine, when most of the musical wastes her in the role of principal. The actual musical highlight comes when a shy child finds her voice and sings “Amazing Grace” in Act II.

Brent Hill is charismatic and full of life as Dewey, but he’s channelling Jack Black, as I guess one must in this role. It’s so strange to see this approximation of a film role that so suited Black, but the creation is fun enough that I enjoyed Hill’s cover of the original.

Expanding a 100-minute film into a two-and-a-half-hour musical has led to fleshing out the child characters, in a small way. We get a sense that all their home lives are tricky; none of them can live up to their fathers’ expectations. (In a montage of their struggles out of school, we don’t see any of their mothers. A strange choice and more on that later.) But with so many child characters, there’s still not enough time to really make them into interesting people.

That said, the classroom scenes are full of life and fun; the young performers work well together and there’s nothing too precocious or saccharine about this lot. In contrast, the adults-only scenes – such as those in the Teachers’ Lounge – are leaden and dull. All of them are caricatures and most of the jokes in those scenes land with a thud.

School of Rock is a slick Broadway musical that is too long and lacks any real dramatic stakes; Dewey’s duplicity is hardly ever challenged and once the truth is exposed, the show still barrels toward a happy ending, the problems finally swept away without consequence.

You could take a kid to the show and they would enjoy watching kids rebelling in the classroom and forming a band and the ridiculous antics of Dewey Finn, but I really wish you wouldn’t. For one major reason…

School of Rock treats women very badly.

The two major adult female roles in School of Rock are the principal and the ex-girlfriend of Dewey’s friend, Ned. While Roz the principal is concerned about her students for good reason, she is still described as “ice cold” – a not-terribly-clever disguise for what Dewey is really saying, “frigid”. And she goes through the predictable story arc of learning to let her hair down and get her rock on.

Ex-girlfriend Patty is a shrewish nag, who doesn’t want Ned to be in a band anymore, for no other reason than she thinks it’s not adult. This means both Ned and Dewey must battle women to find their rock ‘n roll; and Ned’s triumphant moment over Patty is him screaming at her to “shut up”. It’s an ugly moment.

The show itself does throw in two lines of feminist commentary (two whole lines), perhaps as a way to balance out the sexism inherent in the rest of the script. But I’m not sure if I give book author Julian Fellowes that much credit here.

The show goes to great lengths to point out that The Man (who Dewey and the kids are sticking it to) can also be a woman – “but the woman would only get paid 70 cents on the dollar”, the girls of Horace Green shout. It stops the show, as does a later comment about gender representation in media discourse, but neither time feels genuine to the school girls’ characters.

The missing mothers from the student’s home life montage added to my sense that the show was so focused on venerating man-child Dewey and his battle against nagging women that women’s voices were being silenced or ignored. Comments on Mama Cass’ weight and a spit-take by Dewey into a female teacher’s face were just gross.

The low-point was a “stolen” non-consensual kiss by Dewey with Roz after which she jokes about giving “permission” – she’s really talking about consent to a field trip, not the kiss.

School of Rock seems like a feel-good show for kids and families, but this underlying suspicion of women not letting boys be boys was troubling.


Amy Lehpamer as Principal Rosalind Mullins in School of Rock

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