Before 2015, the names Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jack Black were probably never uttered in the same context. The former is famed for his compositions in Broadway hits such as “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera,” while the latter has starred in cult comedy films such as “Nacho Libre” and “Tropic Thunder.” Yet both have made their mark on “School of Rock” — one starring in the 2003 film, the other composing the rock-inspired score for its musical adaptation.
Black leads the movie as Dewey Finn, a wannabe rock star who masquerades as a substitute teacher and ends up forming a band with his fourth-grade class to compete in the Battle of the Bands. Twelve years later, the musical opened on Broadway to wide praise and four Tony Award nominations. Its critical success led to a London production and a U.S. tour, which has now arrived at the SHN Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco.
The musical is more of an homage to its source material than a new interpretation. But that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. The live performances by the touring cast bring a more intimate, exciting presence, one that feels like being at a rock concert after listening to a beloved record.
It’s a musical too cool for — or rather, too hot for — classic Broadway spectacles. There are no swelling orchestral overtures nor large, synchronized dances. Instead, the musical opens with Finn’s fictional band singing “I’m Too Hot for You” to the crowd as if it were performing at a dingy rock concert. Instead of crashing a chandelier on stage or dressing the cast members up in elaborate cat costumes, “School Of Rock” finds its big draw in its talented cast of kids, some as young as 9, who play their own instruments at every performance.
While most of the musical takes scenes directly from the film — a few seemingly word-for-word — the theatrical version also adds more fleshed-out backgrounds for the students at Horace Greene Prep School. The musical explores the relationships between the kids and their parents, resulting in the earnest “If Only You Would Listen,” an ode to parental misunderstanding that’s sung solely by the kids in one of the best performances of the show.
All the kids humorously amplify the caricatural personas of their roles, from sassy costume designer Billy (Huxley Westemeier) to nerdy keyboardist Lawrence (Theo Mitchell-Penner). But the most impressive part of their roles comes from their adept instrumental performances — Zack (Vincent Molden) channels rock-star angst into his Chuck Berry-esque guitar riffs, while Freddy (Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton) brings wild energy to his drum solos. Iara Nemirovsky’s Summer holds her own onstage against Rob Colletti (protagonist Dewey Finn), commanding the theater and her classmates in “Time to Play.”
Yet it’s Colletti, whose previous credits include “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway, who serves as the heart of the show. He drives its high energy all the way to the curtain call — which is when he proudly introduces all of his castmates, making sure every kid gets their standing ovation. His comedic training from The Second City is evident in his boisterous performance as Finn, with Colletti successfully delivering lines that wouldn’t be funny on paper. He plays Jack Black better than Black himself, perfectly balancing Finn’s immaturity with an undeniable sincerity.
Despite performing with them in the finale, Colletti deftly hands the stage over for the children to shine as they compete in the Battle of the Bands. The Orpheum stage transforms into a concert venue and creates a meta experience — especially when the characters’ parents are watching from orchestra seats. Rather than breaking the fourth wall, the show brings the audience into the story world and immerses it into the diegesis in a way the film never could.
The show is a heartwarming, entertaining ode to the young and the young at heart, one that sticks it to the man and Broadway conventions alike.