The next generation of Broadway performers is here, and they are rapidly displacing the veterans. And I am not talking about twentysomethings, or even those in their late teens, but rather, a sort of prodigiously talented little Children’s crusade of kids who are still in grade school or middle school, and who possess the sort of charisma and confidence that enables them to hold their own (and then some) on a great proscenium stage.
These kids have arrived (in significant numbers) on many Chicago stages in recent months, including in Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of “Billy Elliot,” Writers Theatre’s “Trevor” and Victory Gardens’ “Fun Home.” What’s more, they not only can act, sing and dance up a storm, but, at least in the case of “School of Rock” – now in a national touring stop at the Cadillac Palace Theatre – they also can play musical instruments. Mightily impressive.
‘SCHOOL OF ROCK’
When: Through Nov. 19
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph
Tickets: $27 – $98
Info: (800) 775-2000;
Run time: 2 hours and
45 minutes with one intermission
The kids may be burning down the theatrical house, but here is the question: Are the shows that feature them as good as their talent? In the case of “School of Rock,” whose score samples bits of everything from Mozart to Stevie Nicks – but is primarily the work of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (who more or less invented the “rock musical” genre), with lyrics by Glenn Slater and a book by Julian Fellowes based on the hit 2003 film – the answer is not simple.
Watching the show’s 12 kids, who perform with fabulous energy, and shape their distinctive characters with aplomb, is unquestionably immense fun, and can be alternately touching and very funny. And in the role of Dewey Finn, their fraudulent substitute teacher – a failed rock musician suffering from a case of advanced arrested development – Rob Colletti works harder than any marathon runner and goes the full, exhausting distance in every song and scene. (At certain performances this monstrous role will be played by Merritt David Janes.)
But Fellowe’s book is a pileup of cliches and thuddingly obvious “types” while happily skewering the “policies and procedures” approach to running a prestigious prep school – a place where parents shell out big bucks, and teachers emphasize competition rather than creativity and self-actualization in the hope that their students will move one step closer to admission to Harvard. The show’s punk rock anthem is titled “Stick It To the Man.” A glorious aria from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” is ridiculed by way of the school’s cartoonishly repressed principal, Rosalie Mullins (the power-voiced Lexie Dorsett Sharp) who sings it in trillingly Meryl Streep-like style. This smacks of dumbing down more than rebellion.
Dewey (Colletti) is a lost puppy – a guy who envisioned becoming an arena rock star along with his pals in a band called No Vacancy that couldn’t even make it on the local club scene. Years after his failure he is still living like a lost adolescent, a freeloader staying in the spare bedroom of the home of former band-mate-turned-substitute teacher Ned (Matt Bittner), and his witchy wife, Patty (Emily Borromeo). Patty wants him off the premises, and just as he is about to be evicted he takes a job offer meant for Ned and arrives, totally clueless, to work as a long-term sub at the posh Horace Green Preparatory School.
When he realizes that his fifth graders can play classical music (and somehow seem totally unaware of rock), he quickly decides to liberate them from their hidebound teachers and judgmental parents, and turn them into the rock band of his dreams. Comedy and calamity ensue.
No doubt about it, the kids are the reason to see this show in which the celebratory “We’re in the Band” might just be the best song. And director Laurence Connor, along with choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter (who has taken her cue from Bill T. Jones’ jumping theme in “Spring Awakening”) have found some tank-size talent in pint-size bodies, including master drummer Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton; bass player Theodora Silverman; guitar player Phoenix Schuman (a mini David Bowie); star singer Gianna Harris; over-achiever (and “band manager”) Ava Briglia, and seven others. (Along the way, Dewey predictably “liberates” Rosalie as well as his students and himself.)
Set and costume designer Anna Louizos’s rolling desks classroom (with lighting by Natasha Katz and sound by Mick Potter) easily set the mood. And it is worth noting that before the show starts an offstage voice “emphatically” assures the audiences that the kids are indeed playing their own instruments, without mentioning they get a little help from the backup band in the pit. Either way, the kids here earn 10 gold stars on every count. Little rockets who can rock it.