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The cast of School of Rock: The Musical.

  • Title: School of Rock: The Musical
  • Book by: Julian Fellowes
  • Lyrics by: Glenn Slater
  • New music by: Andrew Lloyd Webber
  • Director: Laurence Connor
  • Actors: Merritt David Janes
  • Company: Presented by Mirvish Productions
  • Venue: Ed Mirvish Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to January 6, 2019

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Who would have guessed that School of Rock, Richard Linklater’s 2003 comedy about a rocker who pretends to be a substitute teacher, would eventually evolve into a lucrative multiplatform franchise?

In recent years, the American film has been turned into a TV show on Nickelodeon and a stage musical that’s played on Broadway and the West End, and is now in Toronto on tour.

It’s hard to think of a much more unlikely team to adapt a Jack Black movie featuring cute kids and the tagline “stick it to the man" than a couple of old British dudes who have sat as Conservative peers in the House of Lords.

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But book writer Julian Fellowes (the creator of Downton Abbey) and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (no introduction needed, partnered here with American lyricist Glenn Slater) have turned out an surprisingly enjoyable musical based on it – one that charms chiefly thanks to a corps of preteen actor-musicians, some of whom are tiny quadruple threats.

School of Rock’s plot remains as simple as it did when screenwriter Mike White first imagined it. Shortly after being kicked out of his band, aging rockaholic Dewey Finn (Merritt David Janes) also finds himself threatened with eviction from his apartment. And so, when a private elementary school called Horace Green calls looking for his roommate Ned Schneebly (Layne Roate) to substitute, the musician pretends to be him – thinking subbing is an easy way to earn some cash.

Instead of history and math, Dewey’s “Mr. Schneebly” teaches the uniformed, overscheduled kids in his class to let their hair down and play good old rock’n’roll, and starts training them to compete in an upcoming battle of the bands.

The premise is totally cartoonish, with somehow neither principal Rosalie Mullins (the excellent Lexie Dorsett Sharp) nor anyone else in the school ever hearing the kids playing loud music all day long instead of studying.

But the ludicrousness and low stakes end up being part of the good-natured show’s appeal.

We’re so used to kid-forward musicals being about orphans, from Annie to Oliver!, or underprivileged children, from Billy Elliot to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the other current Mirvish Productions offering.

It’s a refreshing change, and probably more reflective of Broadway’s actual demographic, to have a show featuring a group of preteen characters whose parents can all afford $50,000 annual tuition. (One of the smarter elements of Fellowes script is that we hear actual dollar amounts – for instance, we know that Dewey earns a mere $950 a week.)

Dewey’s students may mostly be stereotypes who can be summed up in an adjective – overachieving Summer (Sami Bray), nerdy Lawrence (Theo Mitchell-Penner), shy Tomika (Grier Burke). But all the performers in the young ensemble are an absolute pleasure to watch – especially the ones who can actually rock out.

There’s a nine-year-old guitarist in the cast named Mystic Inscho (his character is Zach) who will make your jaw drop, while eight-year-old bassist Leanne Parks (playing Katie) never fails to amuse when she puts on her “bass face.” (They’re supplemented by an adult band featuring a trio of power guitarists in the orchestra pit.)

Lloyd Webber began his musical-theatre career writing Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat for a school choir, so the sweet hymn-like harmonies he writes for the young performers in songs like If Only You Would Listen (directed at helicopter parents) are a return to his roots.

Indeed, School of Rock is the Phantom of the Opera composer’s most playful score in ages, featuring nods to classic prog-rock and classical music (including a fun borrowing of the Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute).

Fifteen years after the movie, rock music is even more passé as a musical form, so completely supplanted by hip-hop and pop, that (white, middle-aged, male) Dewey’s steadfast belief in its supposedly transgressive powers is funnier than it ever was. Janes is entertainingly over-the-top as this manic man-child – and he’s got the goods vocally, with a great mock-rock howl. (He plays five out of eight shows a week; the alternate in the unexpectedly challenging role is Gary Trainor.)

There are a only a couple of moments where Fellowes’s book seems a little over the pond and out of touch – such as an early joke about corporal punishment that makes Dewey seem dumber than he is, and Mrs. Mullins more negligent.

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There’s also a sight gag in which Dewey has the kids quickly cover up their musical instruments with a wigwam and dress up as pilgrims and Native Americans before Mrs. Mullins enters the room. I don’t know about American private schools, but here in Canada, a principal walking in on kids in headdresses striking cigar-store poses would be a much bigger problem for a substitute teacher than discovering them at band practice. The touring production might want to bring someone in to tweak this scene so Toronto audiences will laugh instead of cringe in a town where most theatres begin shows with a land acknowledgement.

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