NON-STOP SCHOOL OF SOLID ROCK – School of Rock opens in Sydney

It takes discipline to turn-out a stage event that appears effortless, as if second nature, yet full of vitality. That’s the innate contrast woven within the story of School of Rock (currently at the Capitol, Sydney).  An underqualified music teacher takes on a class at an elite school, and as such, he insists the students ‘loosen-up’, proving that the cast can appear to do so, while meticulously performing the most energetic, inspiring and foot stomping performance you are likely to see all year.

Lovers of the iconic hit movie of the same name won’t be disappointed, as this musical version faithfully follows Dewey Finn, a failed wannabe rock star who, via deception, poses as a substitute teacher at a prestigious prep school. There he turns a class of A-grade pupils into a guitar-shredding, bass-slapping mind-blowing rock band. But the drama unfolds and the tension builds as his plans unravel and his ruse begins to disintegrate before he can get his class to the Battle of the Bands.

Brent Hill takes the lead of Dewey, a tough job to meet the standard set by Jack Black in the original film.  Possessing his own rock voice, Brent has no trouble with the role, nor with being a musician onstage, having played the violin for 7 years as a child, eventually branching out onto other instruments. He’s no stranger to acting either, winning the 2016 Sydney Theatre Award for Best Performance in Little Shop of Horrors, and the 2011 Green Room Award Winner for the lead in Rock of Ages amongst others.

Along with Amy Lehpamer (Rosalie) and John O’Hara (Ned), this musical is two tales twisted into one. The first follows the hopelessness of Dewey who ‘intercepts’ Ned’s job (and the dynamic connection between the ‘grown-ups’ of the story). The other is the development and relationships formed with the children, who ultimately steal the show.

And it’s these ‘kids’ that take your breath away. As performers, they shine in playing a range stretching from naivety to rock gods. In the scene where we are first introduced to their musical prowess, their individual performances visibly move the stunned audience. To witness these ‘kids’ play the guitar like Hendrix, the drums like Collins, the bass like Simmons, and the keys like Rick Wakeman, represent that moment in a musical which overwhelms the emotions.  Applause ensues, as it does for every subsequent number.

There are big guns offstage as well.  Laurence Connor’s directorial credits include Les Misérables (Broadway), Miss Saigon (London), Jesus Christ Superstar (UK and Australian Arena Tour), and the new stage production of The Phantom of the Opera (US and UK).

Choreographer to the young and older cast, JoAnn M Hunter has 20 Broadway shows to her credit, including the Broadway staging of School of Rock, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Broadway Bound.

Also worth noting is how the orchestra blends seamlessly with the cast playing live instruments onstage. Yes, an announcement by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber himself before the show leaves no doubt that the performers onstage are in fact playing their own instruments.

Not altogether unanticipated, there are a few worn clichés in the show. Parents having ‘traditional’ expectations of their children, and lacking an understanding of their needs, does enjoy its own vignette. There is a sprinkle of coarse language, to which the pupils cringe in response, and one set of parents is represented by a same sex couple – which is played a little too camp. And there are a few corny one-liners. Nonetheless, the performances from the leads and the young players truly showcase some immense talent.

Although there is no standout hit-single within the score, while drinking with Dewey in a bar, Amy Lehpamer as the school principal Rosalie Mullins delivers the power ballad of the show. Not surprising given her pedigree.  She’s played Dusty Springfield in Dusty (for which she received a Helpmann Award nomination), Maria in The Sound of Music, and Janet in the encore seasons of The Rocky Horror Show. The character’s love of Stevie Nicks also gives her the opportunity to sing along to the only non-original track in the musical (apart from a few cameo riffs).

As has been reviewed many times around the world, School of Rock proves Lloyd Webber is a master of the craft, capable of reflecting the mood of the time. But as always, a hit show is nothing without the capability and chemistry of the cast. School of Rock only leaves one disappointment, that of wanting to hear a full concert set from this astonishing ensemble of young performers.  I’d also pay to see that.

Venue: Capitol Theatre, Sydney
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, this includes an interval.
Age Recommendation: 5+, with language warning.
Authorised Seller: Ticketmaster (Australia)

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