Photo by Matthew Murphy

Yesterday marked the official opening of Andrew Lloyd Webber's production of School of Rock - The Musical at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre - the same venue which famously hosted his infamous feline friends in Cats from 1982 to 2000. The reviews are in and it turns out that the return to his rock roots has indeed paid off for the Lord. Revered critic Ben Brantley of the New York Times commented:
"Andrew Lloyd Webber has entered his second childhood, and it turns out to be a good career move. For his latest offering...this lordly British composer has been hanging out with fifth graders. Youth, it would seem, is rejuvenating."

And like a well-oiled marketing machine, Webber's Really Useful Group has now announced that the musical will rock out in the magnificent London Palladium (beginning Autumn 2016), as well as on tour throughout the United States (from Autumn 2017).

I was lucky enough to catch a preview performance of School of Rock - The Musical recently and share the same point of view as most of the New York critics. The show has a number of undeniable strengths that leave you no other choice but to get on your feet and embrace that child within who has an unhealthy obsession for the air guitar. Firstly, the efforts made to find and cast unbelievably talented children, who can play a variety of instruments live eight times a week, must be applauded. One hopes that the young talent pool in the UK can offer up a similar bunch for the London production. Secondly, the comic tour-de-force that is Alex Brightman in his breakthrough Broadway performance as Dewey Finn (created by Jack Black in the 2003 hit movie) is the heart and soul (and spine and lungs and... you get the picture) of the show. He balances his performance perfectly for those expecting to feel the essence of Jack Black on the one hand, and for those hoping to see something fresh and new on the other. Through the grapevine, I was told that in order to fatten up for the role, he entertained a diet of beer and bread and drank and ate so much in fact that he suffered a yeast infection in his throat. It seemed that not even that can stop Mr Brightman from giving 110% and unleashing boundless onstage energy from the very first number.

Unfortunately I did not get to see Broadway favourite Sierra Boggess, who plays the lead female role of Rosalie Mullins, as she was temporarily out with an ankle injury. However, her understudy Mamie Parris was more than capable of stepping into the somewhat overshadowed role of the uptight school principal. Her one moment to shine in the spotlight, where Ms. Boggess presumably thanked the Lord (literally) for a musical number to give a little character depth, comes in the form of "Where Did the Rock Go?"

On the topic of musical numbers, I sadly have to say that this is where the show is slightly off the mark. Despite Lord Webber's usual tricks of gleefully bombarding the audience with reprises, begging for you to be humming the melodies as you exit the theatre, not many of the songs stuck in my case. They are perfectly appropriate for the book, whether in the rock or modern showtune genre, but the melodies just don't seem to sink their teeth into you. This seems to have been Webber's status quo since Sunset Boulevard all those years ago, where the majority of songs could become a hit. Having said all that though, I have no doubt that younger theatregoers will wholeheartedly embrace the spirit of numbers such as "Stick It To The Man" and the title song, when performed by their peers on a huge stage.

Anna Louizos has done an excellent job with both the set and costume design, with swift and seamless changes from gritty, low-lit rock clubs to the prestigiously squeaky-clean halls and classrooms of Horace Green. The adult rock stereotypes are kitted out appropriately and more subtle costume choices are displayed by the children's school uniforms, which evolve with attitude by the time they take to the stage as a band.

I believe the Lord has been smart to produce and open the show on Broadway initially - the first time he has done so since 1971's Jesus Christ Superstar. The unlikely upper class pairing with "Downton Abbey" writer Julian Fellowes (and Glenn Slater who provides lyrics) has not had a negative impact on the show's credulity as a young, modern, rock musical comedy. They remain faithful to the source material and no doubt had a healthy dose of assistance from some American (and perhaps younger) colleagues. It will certainly be interesting to see whether School of Rock - The Musical remains a crowd favourite on the Great White Way and how it will fare at the 2016 Tony Awards. It may be even more interesting to see if the London production will fare as well in Lloyd Webber's iconic (and enormous) venue of the London Palladium.

Click here for tickets to School of Rock - The Musical, which is currently booking through to 11 June 2016 at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre.

- by Tom Millward

Photo by Matthew Murphy
Alex Brightman in School of Rock
More production photos