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Theater review: ‘School’ rocks the jump from screen to stage

UPDATED: Thu., May 9, 2019

Merritt David Janes stars as Dewey in “School of Rock.” The show is on its first national tour. (Evan Zimmerman/Murphy Made)
Merritt David Janes stars as Dewey in “School of Rock.” The show is on its first national tour. (Evan Zimmerman/Murphy Made)

The challenges when adapting an original movie into a stage musical are multiple. How to make the new thing not seem like a carbon copy of the old thing? How do you keep the fans of the old thing satisfied?

And in the case of “School of Rock,” how do you solve the Jack Black problem?

Because if there’s one thing the 2003 comedy “School of Rock” is known for, it’s for Black’s iconic take on the lead character Dewey Finn. It’s a role tailor made for Black, one that combines Black’s love of big, bombastic rock music and his natural comedic talents into a funny, appealing package.

If there’s anyone who can overcome these challenges, it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer behind “Cats” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita” and “Phantom of the Opera.” Joined by lyricist Glenn Slater (“The Little Mermaid,” “Sister Act”) and “Downton Abbey” scribe Julian Fellowes, Webber and company pulled it off when their adaptation debuted on Broadway in 2015.

The Broadway musical, now in Spokane on its first national tour, is upbeat, quickly paced, heartfelt and very well performed. And while it follows the narrative beats of the source material, it differs just enough to keep things interesting and add some depth of character.

The story centers on Dewey Finn, played Wednesday night by Merritt David Janes, a wannabe rock god who is booted from his own band weeks before a highly anticipated Battle of the Bands. Dewey is mooching off his high school buddy and former bandmate Ned (Layne Roate), much to the ire of Ned’s uptight girlfriend, Patty (Madison Micucci).

Unemployed, broke and behind on his rent, Dewey intercepts a phone call for Ned from Rosalie Mullins (Lexie Dorsette Sharp), principal of the elite Horace Green Preparatory School, who wants to hire Ned for a long-term substitute teaching gig. Dewey takes the job, and posing as Ned, gets placed in a classroom. After realizing the kids are musical, he enlists them as his band so he can enter the Battle of the Bands. Hijinks ensue.

“School of Rock: The Musical” doesn’t feature a lot of well-known rock classics. There are quotes from songs such as “Satisfaction” by the Stones and “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed. Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen,” immortalized by Joan Cusack as Rosalie in the movie, makes a return appearance, with Sharp’s Rosalie just as hilarious in her adoration. A couple original tracks from the film, including “School of Rock” (aka Zach’s song), make it from the screen to the stage.

The original music from Webber and Slater is a classic Broadway rock, the style Webber made famous in the early 1970s. Dewey’s opening number, “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock” lays out his dreams in overwrought fashion – appropriately so for the character. As Rosalie, Sharp shows tremendous range, going from singing (beautifully) the “Queen of the Night” aria from “The Magic Flute” to the lovely ballad “Where Did the Rock Go?”

The cast really gels with “You’re in the Band,” as Dewey begins to assign roles to his students. It’s a fun number, if for no other reason than we really begin to see how talented these young performers are. That’s hammered home in “Stick it to the Man,” the catchiest song “School of Rock” has to offer.

As good as the adults are, of course, it’s the youngsters who are the real stars. As Webber reminds us via recording at the beginning of the show, they’re all doing their own singing and playing. And they play very well. Cameron Trueblood as Freddie is a kiddie-sized beast on the drums. Julian Brescia channels Ray Manzarek as Lawrence on the keys. Leanne Parks as Katie the bassist keeps the beat with skill and style. Mystic Inscho as Zach is already a budding guitar god.

And when Tomika (Camille De La Cruz) finally gets the nerve to audition as a singer – not a backup singer, she says – she displays an astonishing vocal talent for someone so young.

The show serves its young actors well. “If Only You Would Listen” brings their struggles at home into focus, and is a welcome addition to the story.

The final scene, set at the Battle of the Bands, is staged like a rock show, with bright lights, pounding drums and screaming guitars. It works, serving to punctuate the overall message of the evening: For those about to rock, we salute you.

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