Review: "School of Rock"- National Tour(Toronto)

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Joseph Szekeres

  • Chief Toronto Critic

Need to pay your rent? Try forming your own rock band. Just make sure the lyrics can be heard.

It has been years since I’ve seen the film version of ‘School of Rock’ with Jack Black. I will admit I was never a fan of his to begin and wasn’t certain if I was going to like this production.

Bit of background first. Madeleine Lloyd Webber, current wife of Sir Andrew, vigorously sought the stage rights to ‘School of Rock’ from 2006 after watching the film with her children. She finally landed the rights in 2012. According to the programme, she found the movie, “hilarious, charming and above all touching…for the film’s celebration of the transforming power of music on young people was very close to her heart.”

Well, I didn’t find the current touring US opening night production at Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre touching, but I did find it charming, entertaining and, at times, hilarious thanks to Director Laurence Connor’s skilled gelling of rock music, theatrical music, dance, performance and children. Is ‘School of Rock’ worth attendance this Christmas and holiday season? Sure it is, even though there were the odd moments in both acts where I could not hear the lyrics of the songs because sound and volume were not balanced. This occurred in some of the rock numbers with the adults and in some of the children’s numbers. Hopefully Music Director Martyn Axe will rectify this glitch for future performances. The band and orchestra are in raucously fine form, but I like to hear the lyrics too.

It’s fascinating to watch the magic of set pieces fly in and out and move across the stage all thanks to the use of hydraulics and other computer generation that would probably baffle me in understanding how it works. The opening night show stopped at the beginning of the second act for approximately ten minutes as one of the fly pieces came in too fast and hit one of the set pieces coming across. Thankfully, performers Lexie Dorsett Sharp and Merritt David Janes were not hurt although Mr. Janes had tot move quickly out of the way.

For those who have seen the film, the plot is almost identical in this touring production. Too enthusiastic guitarist Dewey Finn (Merritt David Janes) is booted from the rock band NO VACANCY. He is desperate for work so he can pay rent on time to his friend Ned, a needy and nerdy substitute teacher and Ned’s domineering girlfriend, Patty. Dewey intercepts a letter from prestigious Horace Green Preparatory School addressed to Ned which offers him a substitute teaching position.

Assuming Ned’s identity, Dewey (who has no formal teaching background) assumes the judicioius task of teaching this class of bright and articulate young people who appear to be misfits just like him. Hilarity ensues as Dewey teaches the fine art and history of rock music with the culminating task in preparing the kids to perform in the annual BATTLE OF THE BANDS competition under the name School of Rock.

Merritt David Janes is a wonderfully ramped up Dewey who has channeled his inner Jack Black but goes one step further. He makes the character of Dewey his own by giving him a realistic believability of vulnerability. Yes, at times he is a doofus and underdog, but I was rooting for him at the end.

As former guitarist and now substitute teacher, Ned with his domineering girlfriend Patty, Layne Roate and Madison Micucci deliver solidly amusing performances in watching the bossy female control the wimpy male until the tables are turned. As Rosalie, the ice queen principal of Horace Green Preparatory School, Lexie Dorsett Sharp is tangibly crisp, brisk, sharp and cold throughout much of the first act. Her eleven o’clock number ‘Where Did the Rock Go?” was captivating to say the least when we learn Rosalie was once involved in rock music long ago and loved it but had to turn away when she assumed her duties at the school. Ms. Dorsett Sharp’s powerhouse voice soared high to the upper balcony of the theatre.

The ensemble of parents and faculty staff created uniquely distinct characters. The kids are darned charming and so talented. I counted twelve of them at one point and am hoping I did not miscount. Sir Andrew made a pre-recorded announcement before the show began the kids in all productions of ‘School of Rock’ play the instruments themselves. They are outstanding to watch and look out for in the future!

I really wish I could refer to each one as space does not permit me to do so.  Sami Bray is a precocious and articulate Summer, the spokesperson of the class. As the quietly reserved Tomika, Grier Burke tugged at my emotions because here was a child who wanted to fit in but couldn’t for reasons I won’t spoil. Just wait until Ms. Burke sings. Wow!

Cameron Trueblood as Freddy is drummer extraordinaire. Like Tomika, Zack is a quiet lad who keeps a great deal bottled up inside. Mystic Inscho unscrews the bottle cap and pours forth an energetic Zack who’s in his element as guitarist. Theo Mitchell-Penner as the unconfident Lawrence tugs at the heart strings but once he sits in front of a keyboard – hold on. Sammy Dell as Billy, the young lad with a love of style and fashion, is a hoot when he reminds Dewey that his choice of clothes leaves much to be desired.

Final comments: A terrific production but hopefully you’ll be able to hear the lyrics to the songs.

‘School of Rock’ plays at Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria Street, until January 6, 2019. Tickets may be purchased at www.mirvish.com or telephone 1-416-872-1212.

Photo of Merritt David Janes and the cast of ‘School of Rock’ by Evan Zimmerman-Murphy Made.

Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes with one intermission.

Choreographer: JoAnn M. Hunter, Lighting Design: Natasha Katz, Scenic and Costume Design: Anna Louizos, Sound Design: Nick Potter,