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Broadway's 'School of Rock' is saved by the students

Broadway's 'School of Rock' is saved by the students
Alex Brightman appears during a performance of "School of Rock." (Matthew Murphy)

NEW YORK — The youngsters from the new musical "School of Rock" are on a rescue mission.

Not only are they trying to salvage their wacko teacher's dream of transforming their nerdy selves into a hard-core rock group, but they are doing all they can to redeem this synthetic stage adaptation of the movie that starred a perfectly cast Jack Black.

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The kids are all right. Actually, they're better than all right. They're downright charming — a breath of fresh air in a musical that too often settles for stale competence.

The show, which opened Sunday at the Winter Garden Theatre under the direction of Laurence Connor, is the latest addition to Andrew Lloyd Webber's lucrative musical theater portfolio — a Broadway offering for well-off families looking for something else in the "Matilda" line.

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Lloyd Webber composed the score with lyricist Glenn Slater, and Julian Fellowes (the creative force behind "Downton Abbey") cobbled together the book. There may be less plausible creative teams for this project, but at the moment I can't think of any.

It's not easy to picture Lloyd Webber and Fellowes rocking out to the Who while doing shots at an old dive. Lloyd Webber, of course, came of age with the rock musical "Jesus Christ Superstar," but he's associated today with the bloated operetta style he established through such megahits as "Evita" and "The Phantom of the Opera." Fellowes' involvement seemed so anomalous I wondered if he had been brought on board to keep Sir Andrew tittering over anecdotes about Maggie Smith on the set of "Downton Abbey."

Mike White's screenplay had a fairly rudimentary setup, but the generational details and offbeat humor were right on. Under Richard Linklater's zesty direction, the cast thwarted cliché with quirkiness

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As adaptations go, this is journeyman work, consisting more of alterations than bespoke tailoring. Fellowes, taking a no-nonsense approach to the job, preserves the gags and efficiently replicates the plot.

Alex Brightman plays Dewey, the aging would-be rocker whose story begins with him getting kicked out of his band and harassed by his roommate's girlfriend for being so behind on the rent. In the film, Black brought a slobby mirthfulness to the role — you believed him when he said he had a hangover, and you naturally averted your eyes when his flesh spilled over his jeans.

Brightman, less adept as a clown, makes Dewey more pitiable. When his character gets the bright idea of posing as roommate Ned Schneebly to take a job as a substitute teacher at the elite prep school Horace Green, he's such a pathetic bumbler that the farcical framework is tinged with sympathy. Black's outsized outrageousness was anything but ordinary. Brightman's Ned seems one step away from filling out applications for jobs at a food court.

The rock numbers Lloyd Webber and Slater have devised early on for the show are almost intolerably bad. They're not supposed to be good. Dewey's band, No Vacancy, is made up of a bunch of preening no-talents, but the song they perform at the top of the show, "I'm Too Hot for You," is a monotonous parody that couldn't be over soon enough.

An audience member shouldn't feel tempted to plug his ears at a musical, but I had to slap my fingers away from my ears during Dewey's solo "When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock." His apartment duets with Ned (Spencer Moses) explain why Ned switched to teaching and Dewey has to play-act as a teacher to come up with the back rent.

Between the cacophonous score and over-obvious book, I was ready to pronounce "School of Rock" a miserable failure before the first act was even halfway through, but something happens once Dewey decides to turn his classroom into an incubator for the next Mick Jagger and Janis Joplin. The connection between Brightman and the young cast begins to glisten, and I found myself smiling delightedly during the jaunty "You're in the Band" number, in which Dewey infuses his 10-year-old students with the belief that they can strut and growl and vent their spleens to electric guitar accompaniment.

The musical maintains the same assortment of student types. Summer (Isabella Russo) is the gold-star-hoarding class tyrant who becomes band manager. Freddy (Dante Melucci) is the good-looking wise guy who learns to take out his aggression on the drums. Lawrence (Jared Parker) is the gluten-intolerant classical pianist geek who has to be coaxed into letting loose on the keyboard. Billy (Luca Padovan) is the sports-allergic Barbra Streisand fan who appoints himself band stylist.

The musical holds up rock as a utopian alternative to the overstructured, hypercompetitive world of private education. This can get a little heavy-handed, but the helicopter parents, representing a diverse modern panoply, are fun to watch. Shy Tomika (Bobbi MacKenzie) has two dads who want her to be so happy at her new school that she feels as much pressure as she would had she a tiger mom exhorting her to get straight A's.

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In the movie, Ned was played by White and Ned's controlling girlfriend, Patty, was played by Sarah Silverman. Moses and Mamie Parris offer more generically goofy versions of the characters.

Sierra Boggess grows in the role of Rosalie, the school principal whose authoritarian manner starts to slip once Dewey discovers she has a weakness for Stevie Nicks. Her big number, "Where Did the Rock Go?," continues the theme that responsible adulthood shouldn't completely squeeze out head-banging wildness.

The show, however, belongs to the children, who begin under Dewey's encouragement to flower into rock stars. "School of Rock" squeaks by with the lowest of passing grades, but each and every young actor in the cast deserves to be on Broadway's honor role.

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