School is in session

‘School of Rock’ shows that rock stars can be pint-sized

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School of Rock at the Denver Center for Performing Arts
© Matthew Murphy

In School of Rock The Musical, wannabe-rock legend Dewey Finn poses as a substitute teacher in order to make some extra cash. When describing his faux teaching philosophy, Dewey turns to what he knows best: music.

“I believe the children are our future,” he says. “Teach them well and let them lead the way.”

Whether you like the George Benson version or Whitney Houston’s take, the sentiment is what lies at the core of the School of Rock story. Now playing at Buell Theater through June 10, the musical shows us that the future of music lies in the hands of the children, and damn, the future looks good.

Based on the movie of the same title, the stage production follows Dewey on his mission to win the battle of the bands contest. After being kicked out of his own band, Dewey finds a new gig, subbing at a snobby private school with an uptight principle. Still hellbent on winning the contest, Dewey discovers his new band in the kids of his class.

Still in residency, the show premiered on Broadway in 2015 and secured four Tony nominations. Andrew Lloyd Webber returned to his Jesus Christ Superstar rock roots to write the music for School of Rock

Musicals based on film have a long, beloved history, with successful titles including The Producers and Hairspray. The stage shows usually go on to become their own entity, a retelling that adds depth to the original story. With source material that is ripe for adaptation, School of Rock is a welcome, but flawed, addition to the list of successful musical-to-movie translations.

Outright, there are a few weak points with the adaptation. For one, it relies too heavily on its source material, with much of the dialogue pulled directly from the movie. This doesn’t let the musical carve out its own path, instead making it feel gimmicky, like a reboot more concerned with spitting out classic catch phrases then adding substance to the canon.

The movie itself is full of music, with a couple original songs that grew to be successful in their own right, including the title song. Thus, the show needed to be precise about which scenes  to add songs to. While the show is mostly successful in this endeavor, there are a handful of songs that fall flat. Many seemingly pointless moments are dressed up with original music, such as a meeting in the teachers’ lounge or a Guitar Hero music session, which ended up taking focus away from the poignant scenes. 

In these moments, the show felt bloated. Many of these throwaway songs occur at the start of the show, forcing the audience to chew a mouthful of gristle before offering the tender meat that makes School of Rock such a treat.

The children elevate the show from mediocre to memorable, intensifying the show’s joie de vivre and reinforcing the power of live theater. They infuse the show with youthful energy and talent that overflows off the stage; there’s something so lovable about kids jumping around on stage shouting, “I’m in the band!”

It’s in the second act that School of Rock hits its sweet spot. “Where Did the Rock Go?” is a wonderful ballad about losing youthful passion. When the substitute is found out in “Dewey’s Confession,” chaos erupts in a fun, snappy song that embodies the playful spirit of musicals. The show culminates with “School of Rock,” tying everything together with a kick-ass bow.

The entire cast delivers entertaining and energetic performances, notably Lexie Dorsett Sharp as the stuffy principal Ms. Mullins, and Rob Colletti as Dewey, whose antics carry the show.

But inarguably the rocket fuel of the production are the dozen kids who rock the stage, particularly Theodora Silverman on bass, Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton on drums, Vincent Molden on guitar, Theo Mitchell-Penner on keyboards and Grier Burke on vocals. Not even old enough to drive, these kids are seasoned pros — many of them as quadruple threats: singing, dancing, acting and playing an instrument.

While funding for the arts dwindles at schools across the country, School of Rock is a case study in favor of turning the tables. If children are the future, fund the arts and let them lead the way.

On the Bill: School of Rock The Musical. Buell Theater at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1400 Curtis St., Denver. Through June 10.