Reviewed by Demi Franks
Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
‘I thought you all were a bunch of little douche bags, but now I know that you’re soul brothers and sisters.’
It’s no secret that turning the 2003 comedy cult classic ‘School of Rock’ into a musical had been on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s agenda pretty much ever since film’s inception. However, after making its debut on Broadway in 2015 and having since taken the West End by storm, it seems hard to believe Webber’s School of Rock is only just now embarking on it’s UK tour debut.
Based on the cult film, School of Rock the Musical follows the story of Dewey Finn (Alex Tomkins), a low-life loser who’s just lost his job and been kicked out of his own band. He becomes the ultimate opportunist when he poses as his substitute teacher flatmate, Ned Shneebly (Matthew Rowland) in order to pay his rent. However, teaching fourth-graders at the $50,000 dollar-a-year prestigious Horace Green would appear to be harder than he had hoped, that is until he witnesses their musical talent and forms…. ‘The School of Rock!’
‘Music is what speaks to you and that’s what matters most’
A story ultimately about music’s transformative influence and power, particularly on young people; Webber is wise to keep in many of the classic iconic tunes (some a little re-mastered) but still holding their authentic power and affability, whilst complimented by some perfectly punchy and well-conceived new theatrical songs, all helping to aid the plot and character development, such as that of Principle Mullin’s (played wonderfully by Rebecca Lock) powerful solo number ‘Where did the rock go?’. The music is what brings all the elements of Director Laurence Connor’s production together and nothing is more impressive than the big group ensemble numbers, which certainly bring the ‘WOW’ factor. It also has to be mentioned that whilst Webber introduces us to the show via a recorded voice message letting us know that ‘yes the children really are playing their instruments live’, Riley’s ‘Grown Up Band’ doesn’t miss a beat and are the consistent backbone of the show.
Visually, it’s a feast for the eyes too. Louizos’ set effortlessly turns from classroom to rock stage in a matter of seconds and with the help of Katz’s lighting design and Potter’s sound design, which are equally impressive, we feel like we have been transported to a live rock concert!
It’s never a good idea to fixate on one specific actor playing one specific role, but having become so synonymous with the film, sitting down in the auditorium and much to my childhood disappointment, I had to remind myself that no, 52-year-old Hollywood actor Jack Black would not be bouncing up on this Manchester stage some 18 years later to reprise the role of Dewey Finn. That disappointment was however swiftly and skillfully dismantled by the buoyant and hilarious Alex Tomkins (alternate Dewey Finn) who stormed the stage, literally, exuding the most incredible amount of sheer and consistent energy and vivacity for the entirety of the two and a half hour production that I have probably ever seen.
The classroom scenes certainly prove to be the most heart-warming and enjoyable, as indeed the all ‘acting’, ‘singing’, ‘dancing’ and ‘musical instrument playing’ kids are the beating heart of this production. They pepper about the stage with bucket loads of enthusiasm from the off, but truly establish themselves in Act 2 as we see their character’s personal stories develop. As an ensemble they are quite the force and as such it is extremely hard to pick any standouts, but on this occasion it has to be said that Souparnika Nair’s Tomika had the entire auditorium firmly fixated in bewilderment at her breathtaking vocals as she performed ‘Amazing Grace.’ Special kudos must also go to the casting team here who have cast over 40 children alone (to allow for obvious cast rotations).
Webber, Fellows and Slater have masterly created a production that maintains the best of the film’s original warm fuzzy and familiar moments that in turn makes it a nostalgia inducing and an emotionally uplifting evening to all those ex-15 year olds, who like myself, would have grown up watching the film on repeat and known it word for word, whilst simultaneously establishing a current, up-to-date, modern musical, that equally speaks to the youth of today and families alike.
A whole lot more than just Rock n Roll, this is real life affirming stuff…
The perfect ‘January blues’ pick-me-up for the whole family, School of Rock the Musical plays at the Palace Theatre, Manchester until the 15th of January tickets available here.