In one of the most entertaining numbers in the musical “School of Rock,” which opened Thursday at the Hollywood Pantages theater, a substitute teacher rallies his 10-year-old students to “stick it to the man” by ignoring their stuffy prep-school curriculum and forming a rock band.
It’s fun to watch the adorable children morph from grade-grubbing fussbudgets into miniature sneering, strutting Mick Jaggers and Axl Roses over the course of a few catchy bars. The audience can’t help getting swept up in the rebellion. JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography here is mostly in the arms — a flurry of left-right-left jabs implying, without being too anatomically specific, that something is being stuck to a man.
A few onlookers may wonder, however: Wait, national tour of Broadway hit — written by Julian Fellowes (book), Glenn Slater (lyrics) and, of all people, Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) — aren’t you the man?
Can “School of Rock” be seen as a celebration of the death of rock ’n’ roll? The total co-opting of rock music as a profit-generating tool of the capitalist hegemony?
Those questions inevitably lead to another, more chilling still: What if rock ’n’ roll has always been a profit-generating tool of the capitalist hegemony?
“Stick it to the man!” screamed the youth culture.
“Oh, heavens no, don’t do that,” replied the man. “Just make a musical.”
At this point in the demoralizing thought process, it was intermission and time to file out to the lobby for snacks and show merch.
Mike White’s 2003 film that inspired this adaptation succeeds largely because of Jack Black’s performance as Dewey Finn, whose wide-eyed, rhapsodic enthusiasm for rock ’n’ roll proves irresistible.
Black’s Dewey was so earnest and passionate about rock ’n’ roll that nobody ultimately cared that his actions amounted to identity theft and kidnapping, among other things. He charmed man after man, as fast as the plot could throw men at him, until it seemed that all men, no matter how formidable, were just hoping to have it stuck to them. They wanted to stop being killjoys and just rock out.
Black doesn’t star in the musical, but his round physique, wit, excitability and wailing tenor do — faithfully embodied by the charming Rob Colletti. Lloyd Webber and Slater have added 14 new songs to the film’s original handful. With the book by Fellowes (of “Downton Abbey” fame, oddly enough), the result is an implausible, entertaining facsimile of rock ’n’ roll dreamed up by people who think they understand rock ’n’ roll (but don’t, quite).
Their earnest paens to the rock ’n’ roll spirit — “Mount Rock” and “Where Did the Rock Go?” — might as well be anthems about rocking chairs. And yet the Cinderella story, ably and cheerfully directed here by Laurence Connor, still works its magic.
We follow along as Dewey gets fired as guitarist of his group, No Vacancy, as its rehearsing to compete in a battle of the bands for a cash prize. Dewey needs the cash: He’s behind on the rent, and his formerly heavy metal-loving roommate, Ned Schneebly (Matt Bittner), has fallen under the influence of a goody-goody girlfriend, Patty (Emily Borromeo), who wants Dewey out of their apartment and their lives.
Dewey sees a way to stave off eviction when he intercepts a phone call from the Horace Green School, offering Ned a substitute-teaching job. Unlike Ned, Dewey isn’t actually a substitute teacher, but he figures he can impersonate Ned just long enough to earn some money. His first day on the job has him attracting leery glances from the school’s stodgy permanent faculty and going out of his way to appall the prim principal, Rosalie (Lexie Dorsett Sharp), and the rule-abiding students — but not quite enough to give away the game.
Dewey is happy to serve in a permanent state of recess until one life-changing day when he stumbles into an orchestra rehearsal and discovers that his students have musical talent. He immediately hauls in a bunch of instruments from his van, and during one irresistible number, “You’re in the Band,” he transforms the timid, classically trained children into hard rockers.
It’s by far the best scene in the show — as it is in the movie — and not just because watching children mimic adult affectations is so delightful to us as a species. When Katie (Theodora Silverman) starts slapping the bass, Freddy (Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton) smashes the hi-hat, Lawrence (Theo Mitchell-Penner) blows the roof off with his keyboard improvisations and Zack (Vincent Molden) shreds on the electric guitar, all of them looking uncannily like members of Van Halen in the 1980s except somehow pure and innocent, the audience kvells like grandparents watching a toddler in Daddy’s tie.
But also, even the students who don’t play instruments find roles in Dewey’s band. The techno nerd is in charge of the lighting. The effeminate boy with an interest in fashion gets to design the costumes. The type-A girl ends up the manager. There’s a place for everyone in Dewey’s magical world — even if just inside a stereotype. By the time Dewey has helped shy Tamika (Grier Burke) discover her powerful singing voice and unlocked Zack’s songwriting talents, he has us in the palm of his hand. We can barely wait for him to get through the obligatory plot obstacles and achieve his inevitable triumph.
This takes a while, even though those obstacles are pro forma and easily dispatched: the villainous principal melted by Stevie Nicks, the obtuse parents overwhelmed with pride, even the screeching Patty swept off her feet by the brutal allure of death metal. Still, the stately unfurling of the plot allows us plenty of time with the quick-witted Dewey and his adorable charges, whom we could watch pretend to be rock stars forever, if only they wouldn’t grow up.
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‘School of Rock’
Where: Hollywood Pantages Theater, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends May 27
Tickets: $35 and up
Info: (800) 982-2787, hollywoodpantages.com or Ticketmaster.com
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
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Where: Segerstrom Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: July 24-Aug. 5. Performances 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $29 and up
Info: (714) 556-2787, www.scfta.org
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