Actor Rob Colletti, who plays the lead role of Dewey in the traveling production of “School of Rock,” once came backstage to find himself face to face with Jack Black, who had starred in the 2003 film of the same name. Rather than offer Colletti notes on playing Dewey, the Tenacious D musician and star of dozens of films instead merely encouraged Colletti in his effort — and asked several questions.
“He was super kind and really inquisitive. He had a bunch of questions for the cast, the kids, everyone,” Colletti said. “Our conversation was sort of limited to him being inquisitive about my life as opposed to the show.
“One of the things he mentioned backstage was just how refreshing it was to see a version of the show that kind of gave him a new perspective on the story.”
Arguably, Colletti “knows” Dewey, the slacker substitute teacher who turns his young students into a classic rock-appreciating classroom band, far better than Black ever did. For while film acting typically takes three months, Colletti has inhabited Dewey for the better part of a year since “School of Rock — The Musical” commenced its nationwide tour in Rochester, N.Y., last September.
The rock show next rolls into the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts Tuesday for several weeks of matinees and evening shows. Colletti will trade off Dewey duties with Merritt David Janes.
Not only does Colletti bear more than a passing resemblance to Black, but the Chicago native also began playing guitar as a young man. And like his fictional counterpart, Colletti too harbors a deep passion for the classic rock tunes Dewey teaches his young charges.
“When I was 10, my dad asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I asked for a guitar, and I got a very inexpensive, balsa wood classical guitar you can’t really do much with,” Colletti recalls. “I became obsessed with it. I bought chord books and looked up chord progressions.”
Colletti’s love of playing Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam, Green Day and the Beatles on guitar wasn’t intended as a bridge to show business, he insists. Rather, when the self-taught musician was a teen, he accompanied a nervous friend to audition for the school play and found himself cast as a lead.
“I got bit by the [acting] bug hard,” Colletti says.
The actor now divides his time between New York and Los Angeles and said he was a fan of the film “School of Rock” when the opportunity to try out for Dewey came his way. The play, featuring music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and a book by Julian Fellowes (“Downton Abbey”), follows the same through line of the movie, but more fully fleshes out the dynamic between Dewey and school principal Rosalie (Lexie Dorsett Sharp).
“I feel that what ain’t broke you don’t need to fix,” Colletti says of translating the Richard Linklater film to stage. “The show, though, adds this new examination of the relationship with the principal, and also the relationship with the children, which makes the show a little bit longer. But it gives you an entirely new experience as well.”
Colletti encourages fans of the film, who might be loathe to see anyone but Jack Black rocking out as Dewey, to give both himself — and the play — a chance.
“When you do a show like this, it’s very difficult to get away from what Jack Black and Joan Cusack and [screenwriter] Mike White did in creating this film. It was built for them,” Colletti said. “It’s important to pay homage to the work that’s been laid before but it’s important that we are also doing our own storyline.”
Colletti is quick to heap praise upon his young co-stars, who are not professional actors but, just as he once was, young people who simply enjoy the twin arts of stagecraft and music.
“They’re so humble, and they’re so excited to be here, and that’s what I think makes the show work,” he said. “And at the end, when you see the children play the [finale] live, which they do every night, they’re something so magical about [it].”
Actor Theo Mitchell-Penner, who plays Lawrence, the keyboardist in the class band, is a classically trained pianist, but said the musical allows him to use his talents in newer ways.
“One of the things I have really liked doing is adding my signature touches to Lawrence — the bendback on the solo and petting the feathers on the finale blazer are two things that I came up with,” Mitchell-Penner said.
Colletti calls his younger castmates — and their parents — friends, and says he continues to keep in touch with those who leave the show for education or other reasons.
“We have these forged relationships that offer a special experience that these kids will never forget,” he said. “The fact that I got to be Dewey for them is such an honor, and I’m really making an effort that, as we go through life, I stay in touch. I want to go to their high school graduations and watch their lives unfold.”
While Colletti certainly isn’t as well known as Black in showbiz circles, he laughs relating such moments as being recognized on the streets of L.A. by Kate Flannery, known for nine seasons as the boozy Meredith on “The Office.”
“I was walking back to the theater with my girlfriend after we had done some between-show shopping, and [Flannery] screamed out my name and stopped me on the street,” Colletti said. “She told me she liked the show. It was a really surreal moment.”
If You Go
What: “School of Rock — The Musical”
When: July 24 through August 5; 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Cost: Tickets start at $29
Information: (714) 556-2787 or scfta.org.