Before the curtain comes up for each night of “School of Rock,” the recorded voice of beloved Broadway/West End writer Andrew Lloyd Webber must make a reassurance. Instead of sending the audience into a world of disbelief, as he does in shows such as “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera,” he seeks to make sure audience members do believe. His message is this: Yes, the child actors in “School of Rock” really play their own instruments. And, as those who attend the national touring production of the show at the Walton Arts Center will learn, they play them very well. The musical, which debuted on Broadway in late 2015, can be seen in Fayetteville through Oct. 28.
The show closely follows the plot of the 2003 movie “School of Rock,” which featured comedian/actor/songwriter Jack Black as an almost-at-the-bottom rock guitarist who seizes on an opportunity to serve as a substitute teacher. Instead of basic arithmetic, he teaches them Black Sabbath and brings in his former band’s gear for day-long jam sessions.
What: School of Rock
When: Through Oct. 28
Where: Walton Arts Center
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or tickets.waltonartscenter.org
The teacher, Dewey Finn (played in Fayetteville by Merritt David Janes), needs this band to be good, as he’s hoping to cash in on their talents to keep his rock ‘n’ roll dreams alive and subsequently pay his rent. He has a timeline, too. He needs the money before his best friend and former bandmate Ned Schneebly (played by Layne Roate) and Ned’s girlfriend, Patty Di Marco (Madison Micucci), kick him out. Luckily, there’s a Battle of the Bands offering prize money on the horizon.
You might guess at the hijinks that follow, even if you’ve never seen the movie. The prep school is naturally worried about the slovenly teacher with unusual teaching methods. The kids revolt against their overbearing parents and stuffy school situation, learning their instruments and inner strength in the process. Dewey’s credentials are questioned, and he must discover what really matters to him as well.
Those connecting threads are well and good, but rarely more than a vehicle to give stage time to precociously talented children. And those kids are worth the admission price, and a good reason to bring your family along with you. It is a family-friendly show, but I should offer a word of caution to parents. Bring your children at considerable risk of them wanting to pick up the guitar or drums after seeing the show.
The rock band hastily assembled in Dewey’s classroom is made of double- (or triple-) threat performers who are a third of my age but at least three times as musically talented. (Okay, 10-20 times more musically talented.) And in case we’re not sure of this, the writing team of Webber, Julian Fellowes (book) and Glenn Slater (lyrics) leaves young actors musically exposed to show off their talents. During the finale/encore portion of the evening, Dewey points to the individual band members, just like the frontman of a touring band might. Each main student musician received a solo turn, and all of them capitalized on their moments, such as when Lawrence (played by Theo Mitchell-Penner) played his keyboards one handed while arching backwards so far he could no longer see the keys.
These children – there are more than a dozen total – are the stars of the show. That’s not to discredit the other actors. Janes, who was in the ensemble of “School of Rock” when it debuted on Broadway, does well to work as orchestrator of the proceedings. For better and worse, his presence felt derivative of Black, particularly that of his madcap personality in the joke rock band Tenacious D. Actress Lexie Dorsett Sharp provides a particularly keen and funny effort as school principal (and near-foil) Rosalie Mullins. The on-stage aesthetics give a feel of a big-time production as well, with large, complicated set pieces rolling in seamlessly and transporting us between music stages, classrooms and Dewey’s band poster-covered bedroom.
But it’s all window dressing to the main attraction. If you want to be awed by the precocious talent of a kid’s rock band, the Walton Arts Center would like to take you to school.