There's that famous bromide, sometimes attributed to W.C. Fields, that warned actors against working alongside children, because they'll always upstage you. In the case of the touring musical School of Rock, that's certainly true: It features a cast of a dozen or so kids who can sing and dance and act and play instruments and have crack comic timing, and they're indisputably the stars of the show.
All I could think as I watched them work the stage Thursday night was, "Why was I so unproductive at age 11?" It must have been on other peoples' minds, too: On the way out of the First Interstate Center for the Arts, all I heard from my fellow theatergoers was rapturous praise for the pre-teen cast members. They're really phenomenal.
But that's not to say that the grown-ups in the ensemble are left to flail. Hardly.
Merritt David Janes is all schlubby Tasmanian devil energy as Dewey Finn, the wannabe rock star who fakes his way into a substitute teaching gig at the stuffy Horace Green Prep School. And Lexie Dorsett Sharp, whose vocal range is as impressive as any heavy metal screamer, is a terrific comic foil in the form of uptight principal Rosalie Mullins, who has long traded in her Stevie Nicks records for classical music. She, therefore, doesn't realize that her students are rock stars-in-the-making, but Dewey does, and his grand scheme is to form an all-kid group, enter them in an upcoming music competition and stick it to the band that kicked him to the curb.
School of Rock is, like so many modern musicals, an adaptation of a beloved comedy film, in this case the 2003 Richard Linklater hit starring Jack Black. Julian Fellowes' book mostly sticks to the outline of Mike White's original script, but it's smart in what it lifts directly from its source and what it fleshes out: The strained relationships between some of the students and their parents, barely explored in the film, are rendered much more specifically here, and supporting characters who only got a couple lines in the movie feel more like major presences on stage.
Downton Abbey creator Fellowes' involvement is undoubtedly a little strange, but I was particularly trepidatious when it came to famed composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote the score. Sure, the guy has penned renowned rock operas, but that's a far cry from AC/DC or Led Zeppelin. And while not all the songs here work (some of the hard-rock pastiches sound like the kind of thing Dewey himself would scoff at), the ones that do — particularly kid-driven numbers like the ballad "If Only You Would Listen" and the anti-establishment head-banger "Stick It to the Man" — are really terrific. (In a nice, self-deprecating move, Dewey makes a lighthearted swipe at Webber's music for the oft-maligned Cats.)
And then there are the kids, all of whom get their spotlight moments: Sami Bray has fun with the role of class know-it-all Summer (Sami Bray); Julian Brescia is endearing as shy keyboardist Lawrence; Mystic Inscho (as guitarist Zack), Leanne Parks (as bassist Katie) and Cameron Trueblood (as troublemaking drummer Freddy) have great presence and chemistry as a rock band; and Camille De La Cruz shows off dynamite pipes as class wallflower-turned-belter Tamika.
School of Rock is, at its core, the story of a loser finding his purpose in an unexpected place, and about a group of kids who learn that, in order to get adults to listen, you sometimes have to crank your voice all the way up to 11. It's a foolproof show, and with a cast as talented as this one, it's hard to imagine anyone not walking out with a big, goofy grin.
School of Rock continues through Sun, May 12, at First Interstate Center for the Arts; tickets are available here.