There’s a unique pleasure in watching a guitar wizard shred his solos, a bassist snatch fat beats from her instrument, a keyboard player tear up and down his keys and a drummer smash his skins, knowing all the while they’re up well past their bedtimes.
“School of Rock,” which has settled into Ovens Auditorium on its Broadway Lights tour, offers other joys: a well-crafted score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, some clever lyrics by Glenn Slater, a leading performance by Rob Colletti that summons Jack Black from the 2003 film but adds extra likeability, a book by Julian Fellowes (yes, the “Downton Abbey” creator) that assigns each of the 12 students we meet a spot of individuality.
But the most remarkable thing – so remarkable that Lloyd Webber can be heard before the show, assuring us it’s true – is that four young actors, all apparently pre-teens, play their instruments live. Correction: rule their instruments. Drummer Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton, keyboardist Theo Mitchell-Penner, bassist Theodora Silverman and especially guitarist Phoenix Schuman deliver body-shaking rock that makes no excuses for age.
Fellowes took his structure (even actual scenes) from Mike White’s screenplay, itself an updating of “The Music Man”: An outsider bluffs his way into a closed society, conning people out of dough, and promises to make their children musicians. He dodges authorities, wins the heart of an initially reserved woman who doubts him, gets exposed but convinces parents he’s done a wonderful thing.
In “School,” of course, students at prestigious Horace Green already make music – classical music, led by principal Rosalie (Lexie Dorsett Sharp), an erstwhile rocker now prim with responsibility. Slacker Dewey Finn (Colletti) intercepts a letter offering his roommate a teaching job. He shows up under his pal’s name, bewildering Rosalie, and helps kids find their inner musicians. Luckily, they all turn out to be spiritual grandchildren of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Angus Young. (There’s a sartorial AC/DC joke at the end.)
The musical, like its inspirations, remains preposterous: When the school makes Dewey’s paychecks out to “Cash,” we know we’re in Cuckooland. Nor, for all the rush provided by the anthem “Stick it to the Man,” does it encourage rebellion. Dewey’s a would-be rock singer, a conniver and a fraud, but no revolutionary. He’s like the lead singer in Spinal Tap: “No page in history, baby – that I don’t need/I just wanna make some eardrums bleed.”
Messages in the book and lyrics are humble ones: Hear your children. Let them find their flock. Love them and encourage them to do whatever they love. (There’s also a suggestion that giving your all in a competition matters more than winning, but the show undermines it.)
Characterizations hold no surprises. We know Rosalie will find her old rock voice (a powerful one) and shy student Tomika, played winningly by Gianna Harris, will find her new rock voice in the school band (a sweet one). Smug Summer (Ava Briglia) will stop irritating classmates when given an important job only she can do.
Yet in-jokes consistently catch us off-guard: Dewey, listening to a girl sing Lloyd Webber’s “Memory,” grunts, “I don’t know what that is, but I never want to hear it again.” Rosalie leads the class in a wordless version of Mozart’s “Die holle rache,” which opera fans know marks her as an ice princess. (Though like Mozart’s Queen of the Night, she’s not what she first seems.)
Lloyd Webber, who’ll turn 70 in March, wrote rock numbers half a century ago for “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” A return to his roots seems to have liberated him. He and Slater don’t take this music too seriously but don’t mock it either, even in “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock.” There Dewey imagines a heaven where Odin and Zeus thunder on bass and drums, Thor completes the rhythm section on tambourine, and Jesus (apparently a celestial roadie) hands out the beer. Who can’t clap along with that?