For most of its nearly three-hour run time, School of Rock feels like a C-plus student: enthusiastic but unfocused, perfunctory expression of ideas, struggles with staying on task. But then, as so many panicked scholars have done before, it cranks out a final project that truly wows and walks away with an incrementally improved GPA.
This show is saved by the bell because of its ensemble of mind-bogglingly talented young performers — there's even a pre-show announcement assuring us that, yes, they are indeed playing their instruments live.
"Is this a gimmick?" asks the man running the Battle of the Bands, where the kids have come to compete against adult hard-rock groups. Yes, and the show works best when it leans heavily into it, showing us kids who found their swagger through Jagger and not dwelling on the boring adults.
The stage musical is based on the 2003 Richard Linklater film, which starred Jack Black as a slovenly man-child who impersonates his timid roommate so he can make some quick cash substitute teaching at a preppy private school. But he's surprised when he starts caring not only about the kids in his class, but their uptight principal, too.
Andrew Lloyd Webber might not be the first name that springs to mind when you think "rock music," but he and Glenn Slater do a passable job delivering a score that, while not particularly memorable or clever, does incite lots of hand-clapping and foot-stomping. If nothing else, it's a huge step up from their last Dallas Summer Musicals tenant at the Music Hall, the overwrought and at times downright laughable Love Never Dies.
Julian Fellowes (of Downton Abbey fame) expands Mike White's movie script to focus a bit more on the kids, leading to a lot of "parents just don't understand" moments that still feel sufficient for the experience. These cardboard cut-out parents do not understand, and in fact most of the adults are one-dimensional sketches who exist mainly to fill space: teachers at the school, patrons at a bar, etc.
The only two grown-ups who get even a hint of an actual personality are Dewey Finn (Rob Colletti) and Rosalie Mullins (Lexie Dorsett Sharp, but played by Elysia Jordan at the performance reviewed).
An alum of The Book of Mormon and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Colletti has already passed his final exams in "loud, boorish, sloppy guy with a hidden heart of gold" and is now working on extra credit. He thankfully avoids imitating Black but keeps the movie star's energy and irreverence, and knows just when to pull back the antics so that his character remains on this side of believable.
Jordan isn't given as much to work with, as her straight-laced principal is only allowed to become human when Stevie Nicks starts blasting on the jukebox. It's yet another example of the common trope of "strict, sad, and single career woman" — there's more than a passing resemblance to the lead character of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's Bright Star, which played at the Winspear earlier this summer through AT&T Performing Arts Center. But still Jordan persists, finding particularly nice moments when the kids begin to melt her icy exterior.
But when you exit after the finale, the only thing that really sticks is this gaggle of tremendously talented kids. "You're 10 years old and already better than me," moans Dewey after one of his young charges writes a song and then shreds it on the guitar. It's a feeling with which we'll probably all sympathize.
The national tour of School of Rock plays at the Music Hall at Fair Park through August 26. It then runs at Bass Hall August 28-September 2.