First Nighter: Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'School of Rock' Doesn't Quite Rule

The old theater saying that goes "If you have a great finish, you don't have to worry about anything else" comes close to working for the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Glenn Slater-Julian Fellowes musical adaptation of School of Rock, screenwriter Mike White's 2003 movie starring Jack Black.

And like just about every other of the not abundant high points in this Lloyd Webber-ized School of Rock,, it involves the terrific young actors -- several of them young actor-musicians -- working like cheerful demons in the story about offensive wannabe rock star Dewey Finn (Alex Brightman, apparently no relation to Sarah), who deviously takes a temporary teaching job at exclusive Horace Green. (Think Horace Mann.) The high-paying position had been offered to best pal Ned Schneebly (Spencer Moses) with whom Dewey had been squatting rent-free, a freeload not much to the liking of working housewife Patti Schneebly (Mamie Parris).

The raise-the-Winter-Garden-roof conclusion takes place -- as these sorts of competition-plotted properties do (see, for instance Glee and Pitch Perfect) -- at a battle. Here it's The Battle of the Bands, where the polite, school-uniformed young-uns whom Dewey has turned into rockers are vying against Metallica copycats.

To the delight of the previously skeptical parents paying $50,000 annually to educate their progeny, Dewey's kids deliver a rousing version of "In the End of Time," supposedly written by pint-sized guitarist Zach (Brandon Niederauer). And make special note that the rest of Dewey's wow-inducing competitive band includes keyboardist Lawrence (Jared Parker), bassist Katie (Evie Dolan), drummer Freddie (Dante Melucci) and lead singer Tomika (Bobbie MacKenzie).

MacKenzie as the shy and for quite a while silent Tomika provides for another of the production's crowd-pleasing moments, although how and why won't be revealed here. The other peak, which is actually the first and arrives after School of Rock's initial numbing 20 minutes or so, has Dewey transforming his docile charges into enthusiastic heavy-metal would-bes by means of a clanging ditty called "You're in the Band."

Oh, yes, musical comedy aficionados, it's the non-voting-age players, including the adorably proficient Isabella Russo as the band manager, who steal this undertaking while the bigger names above and below the title hit wonky notes on their figurative Fender guitars. (Notice that the above-the-title producers include at the pinnacle Lloyd Webber, of course, and then both The Shubert Organization and The Nederlander Organization. Consult Michael Riedel's Razzle Dazzle for background on this not common occurrence.)

Since this wide-eyed commentator hasn't seen the instigating hit movie, he can only imagine that something crucial was lost in the transition from screen to stage. Even the set-up where a substitute teacher refers to his well-behaved students as "douchebags" and blathers about being "pissed" without anyone calling him out hits this viewer as unusually far-fetched. But breathe easy: no four-, seven- or 12-letter words infect Fellowes's dialog or Slater's lyrics.

When Dewey posing as Ned shows up late on his first day, he encounters school head Rosalie Mullins (Lloyd Webber favorite Sierra Boggess), who's painted as something of a martinet. She isn't, however, so extremely martinet-ish that it crosses her mind to drop in on temp teacher Schneebly's class in his first few days to see how he's faring. Nor does she or any of the other faculty members, all of whom are presented as dullards, appear to take exception to the high-decibel blasts from Dewey's classroom, where all other subjects have been jettisoned.

But, okay, your reporter pleads guilty to being a stickler where suspension of disbelief may be called for. Sure, there's nothing way wrong, to slip into the vernacular, with the script device that has Rosalie turn out to be a closet fan of Fleetwood Mac's Stevie Nicks and warble bits of the beloved Nicks-Mike Campbell "Freedom." It's more than a bit of a contrivance, but let that go.

What about other rankling School of Rock aspects? What about the Lloyd Webber-Slater score, when, that is, Slater's words are intelligible? You could ask, "When are rock lyrics ever intelligible? They're not meant to be intelligible." Needless to say, that's a cop-out--certainly in a musical.

Over the five decades of Lloyd Webber's phenomenal career, he's so often been accused of cribbing from Giacomo Puccini that no one cares to hear about it any more. He won't get that this time around. Now, he's more likely to be called out for trying to prove he's as contemporary as can be, though his newest melodies and riffs, which he orchestrated, conjure only Broadway-rock of the '70s. If just about all the numbers swiftly begin to sound alike, that's because they are--as is JoAnn M. Hunter's choreography.

A big surprise -- possibly the biggest surprise -- isn't the more than adequate Anna Louizos sets and costumes, the Natasha Katz lighting or the Mick Potter sound. It's the Fellowes book. For those who aren't aware, he's the bloke responsible for the fathomlessly witty Downton Abbey. Yet, here he has the young lad tapped to be the band costumer declare that his favorite singer is Barbra Streisand. At one point, he has Dewey inform the kids that rock icons aren't necessarily well educated and mentions Mick Jagger, who did attend the London School of Economics. He had Dewey off-handedly call an Asian student "Lucy Liu."

Perhaps Fellowes can't be blamed for having loose-mouthed Dewey resort to the over-used adjective "awesome" three times (or was it four?), which brings up Brightman's performance. There's no question that he attacks the role like a furious pit bull, but Dewey is such an unpleasant guy, as well as spineless, that all the expended energy in the first two-thirds of the two-act tuner does little to mitigate the charmless freeloader he is.

Incidentally, everything the incensed Patti Schneebly says about Dewey is true, and earned. Still, Fellowes eventually turns her into a villain of the piece. The ploy is just another indication of the twists needed to keep the audience on Dewey's side. Only late in the proceedings -- when he's gotten round Stevie Nicks-lover Rosalie and has realized how much he owes the children -- does Dewey prove a winning presence. At last, Brightman's high-voltage activity pays off.

Laurence Connor, who revivified the current Les Miserables revival so adroitly, directs School of Rock. He's obviously a whiz with the youngsters and gets sufficient life from the supporting cast, Boggess chief among them -- not that anyone would champion many of the one-dimensional characterizations.

As for Lloyd Webber: The Phantom of the Opera undoubtedly stands as his crowning achievement to date, but few will underrate Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar or Cats. He's put a lock on his reputation. But few this side of the Atlantic reaiize that his The Beautiful Game, Love Never Dies and the truly dreadful Stephen Ward -- not one of these crash-and-burns mentioned in his lengthy program bio--have never been exported, and for good reason.

It may even be that he premiered School of Rock here so that he could say he finally got a new show on in Manhattan. Nonetheless, were it not for Russo, MacKenzie, Niederauer, Dolan, Parker, Melucci and their knee-high-to-grasshopper compatriots, musical lovers wanting to watch Broadway school teachers interact with pupils might be better off right now at either Matilda or The King and I.

But Russo, MacKenzie, Niederauer, Dolan, Parker, Melucci and thesbian classmates are present and accounted for. More power to them.