What a Difference a Plot Makes | “School of Rock” @ Hollywood Pantages

School of Rock (Hollywood Pantages)About a month ago, we sat in the darkened theatre that is the Hollywood Pantages (FB) to see a musical with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber (FB), lyrics by Glenn Slater (FB). It was ponderous, and overblown — yes, it was Love Never Dies, the sequel to  Phantom of the Opera (based on a book by Ben Elton, which in turn was based on the book The Phantom of Manhattan by Frederick Forsyth). Last night, we sat in that same darkened theatre to see yet another musical with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber (FB), lyrics by Glenn Slater (FB). This one, however, was glorious and energetic, and one of better musicals we’ve seen this touring season. This one was School of Rock – The Musical (with a book by Julian Fellowes, based on the Paramount movie written by Mike White), and it was a clear demonstration of how a clear and coherent book, combined with different forms and a different sensibility can lead artists in a different and better direction. It was a 180° turn from Love Never Dies, and had music so infectious (in a good way) that I saw 6-year olds, who attended the show, singing the songs on the way out. This is a good thing — it instills a love of live theatre and live performance early, and keeps the artform alive. Which is a notion that School of Rock would love, because its thematic goal is similar — to instill a love of rock as the artform, and to keep art alive.

The story of School of Rock roughly follows the outline of the original movie. Rocker Dewey Finn is stuck in the era of rock. He has a job he doesn’t care about, and lives to play (or overplay) electric guitar in a burgeoning rock band, living with but not paying rent to his high school friend and former bandmate, Ned. The collapse of all of this — being kicked out of the band, losing his job, and demands for the rent from his roommate, Ned Schneebly and Ned’s girlfriend, Patty — prove the catalyzing incident for the rest of the story (hmmm, just as demands for rent are the catalying incident in the musical Rent… but I digress). When the principal of a prestigious prep school, Rosalie Mullins, calls Ned to see if he can substitute teach, Dewey intercepts the call — and hearing what it pays, decides to impersonate Ned so he can get to the Battle of the Bands. Nevermind the fact that Dewey is unqualified to be a teacher — rock and winning the battle is what is most important.

Once ensconced in the Horace Green Prep School, Dewey (now Ned) figures he can skate though by letting the kids have continual recess. But he soon discovers that the kids can play music. The idea is born: Form a band from these kids, get them to the Battle of the Bands, and win the prize. The next step is never clear (other than paying the rent), but that’s not a surprise for Dewey. The remainder of the story is just that: forming the kids into the band, outsmarting the other faculty who are not enamored of Dewey’s teaching method, and dealing with the inevitable discovery and near collapse of the scheme at the end.

Unlike Love Never Dies, which had muddied character arcs and little character growth, what makes School of Rock work is precisely the character growth and arc in the story. Almost every character grows and changes in some way through the story: Dewey learns from the kids about himself and what he can be (including being a better version of himself); the kids learn that they do have a unique voice and talent that makes them more than nerds and misfits; Rosalie Mullins finds the rocker that was insider her all the time, and becomes a better principal for it; Ned finds his backbone and learns to speak up for himself. The plot, in essence, is a testament to the transformative power of Rock to empower and change, and to channel anger and rage at the system into good.

School of Rock is also a very different Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. If you think of ALW, you think of sung-through pieces, whether they be rock like Jesus Christ Superstar or Evita, melodramatic like Phantom, or dance and movement like Cats or Starlight Express. But School of Rock is a traditional-style book musical, with dramatic spoken scenes between the songs, and use of the songs to propel the narrative and transformation forward. In an excellent interview with Glenn Slater on Broadway Bullet, Slater writes how Webber was hesitant to do School of Rock because of its American voice, and didn’t want to do the music until Slater reminded him of his rock roots of Evita and JCS. I think it is this hesitancy that pushed Webber out of his comfort envelope, and led to some of the best music that Webber has written in ages.

But what makes School of Rock succeed, and what wins over audiences every night, are the kids. Jesse Schwinn did a series of rehearsal reports (alas, there’s no good single link) during the pre-opening phase of School of Rock where he talked about the discovery of the original cast of kids in the show, and how these kids were so remarkable because they were playing their own instruments on stage. That’s true on the tour as well: there is a remarkable bunch of kids on stage that win audiences over nightly with there talent: kids that not only have been acting, but playing the piano since age 5, playing guitar since age 6, and exhibiting similar targets that just astounds. They make this show ROCK!

A number of the songs in this show standout for their melodies and their ability to serve as pop-ish numbers, These range from the rocker “Stick It To The Man” (which is an earworm) to the beautiful “If Only You Would Listen” and the closing “School of Rock”. I’ll note that the score does exhibit a few ALW-isms in that particular songs have their themes keep reappearing.

The elements in this show combine in an almost perfect way: kids, a transformative story, great music. It probably would have won more Tony awards, but it was up against Hamilton. One does not win against a steamroller. I think this is a distinctly different ALW musical; do not let the fact that ALW is involved prevent you from seeing this.

Laurence Conner‘s direction and JoAnn M. Hunter‘s choreography work reasonably well in this show — moreso for the kids than for the adults. In some ways, that’s because the original story paints the adults with a broad stroke with broad characterizations. I particularly enjoyed a number of the little touches — facial expressions, reactions, and so forth, as well as the energy of the dance numbers. I didn’t notice when I read the program that Conner has been involved with some of the more melodramatic sung-through shows of late: PhantomLes Miserables, and Miss Saigon, and Hunter was involved with a new show at the Ahmanson quite a few years ago, Harmony.

In the lead position at our show was Jameson Moss (★FB, FB). You’re probably going, “who?”. Moss was the understudy who, according to his Twitter feed, found out at 4:30 PM that he was going to be going on the first Saturday evening performance at 8:00 PM. He’s a relatively new actor, with a few TV and film credits and only one theatre credit I could find (this show appears to be his debut), whose rock band was invited to perform at the Whisky A Go Go when he was only 18.  This is a long-winded way of saying that, for an understudy, he did a damn fine job. He had some sound problems and wasn’t as clear to hear as he could have been, but he handled his songs well and seemed to have a good interaction with the kids. Oh, and the normal players for the role are Rob Colletti (FB), with Merritt David Janes (FB) doing the role at selected performances. Liam Fennecken (★FB) is the other understudy; more on an oddity with him later.
[★ indicates their professional FB page]

The adult female lead (not quite a love interest; more of an obstacle) was Lexie Dorsett Sharp (★FB, FB) as Rosalie Mullins. I quite enjoyed her performance, especially her facial expressions and movement. She brought down the house with her performance of “Where Did The Rock Go?” in the second act.

Of course, the real stars of the show (as least in the eyes of the audience) were the kids, eclipsing the smaller adult roles. The kids consisted of Olivia Bucknor (★FB) [Shonelle – Backup Vocals]; Theodora Silverman [Katie – Bass]; Cameron Trueblood [James – Security]; Alyssa Emily Marvin (★FB) [Marcy – Backup Vocals]; Carson Hodges (★FB) [Mason – Tech]; Grier Burke [Tomika – Vocals]; Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton (★FB) [Freddy – Drums]; Vincent Molden [Zack – Guitar]; Huxley Westemeier [Billy – Stylist]; Theo Mitchell-Penner [Lawrence – Keyboard]; Iara Nemirovsky [Summer – Manager]; and Gabriella Uhl [Sophie – Roadie]. All of these kids are talented, but quite a few deserve special recognition. Let’s start with the musicians: Silverman, Moretti-Hamilton, Molden, and Mitchell-Penner are great on their instruments, and really really shine in their solo moments. It reminds one of how much talent there is in the kids of this world — be it science or music or performance. Burke blows the audience away with her solo of “Amazing Grace”, and Nemirovsky has some great comic and leadership moves as summer. Lastly, Westemeier’s a hoot as Billy.

Turning back to the adults, the remaining non-ensemble named characters are Matt Bittner‘s Ned and Emily Borromeo (★FB)’s Patty. Both find the humor in their lightly drawn roles as foils to Drew; Borromeo captures the authority aspects of her characters quite well, and Bittner is great as a nerd rocker.

The remaining on-stage team serve as ensemble members and cover smaller named roles as indicated: Patrick Clanton (FB) [Gabe Brown, Mr. Hamilton, Jeff Sanderson]; Kristian Espiritu (★FB); Melanie Evans (FB); Liam Fennecken (★FB) [Bob, Mr. Sanford, Cop]; Elysia Jordan (FB) [Mrs. Hathaway]; Deidre Lang (FB) [Ms. Sheinkopf]; Sinclair Mitchell (FB) [Snake, Mr. Mooneyham]Jameson Moss (★FB, FB) [Stanley, Mr. Williams] (note: at our performance, he went on as Dewey); Tim Shea (FB) [Doug, Mr. Spencer]; and Hernando Umana (FB) [Theo]. At our performance, John Campione (FB) swung into the ensemble, but not as one would expect into Jameson’s role; rather, he swung into Liam’s Bob/Mr. Sanford/Cop for some reason. Did Liam swing into Jameson’s ensemble roles? It isn’t clear. Note: There are so many understudies here, I’m not noting who understudies whom.

The swings (◬ indicates kids) were John Campione (FB); Christopher DeAngelis (FB) [Dance Captain]; ◬ Rayna Farr; ◬ Bella Fraker (★FB); Kara Haller (FB) [Asst. Dance Captain]; ◬ Jack Suarez Kimmel; and ◬ Jesse Sparks.

In addition to the kids onstage, music was provided by the local and touring orchestra, under the musical direction of Martyn Axe (FB) [Keyboards]; the touring orchestra was much larger than usual; there was minimal local supplementation (♪). The pit orchestra consisted of: Julie Homi (FB) [Asst Music Director, Keyboards]; Anthony Rubbo (FB) [Guitar 1]; Diego Rojas (FB) [Guitar 2]; Oscar Bautista (FB) [Guitar 3]; Lynn Keller (FB) [Bass]; Taurus Lovely (FB) [Drums]; ♪ Mike Abraham (FB) [Guitar 3]; and ♪ William Malpede [Keyboard 2 Sub]. Other music positions were: Benjamin Zoleski (FB) [Childrens Music Director; Band Tech]Lynn Keller (FB) [Librarian]; Talitha Fehr (FB)/TL Music International [Music Coordinator]; Stuart Andrews [Keyboard Programming]; and ♪ Eric Heinly [Local Contractor]. John Rigby was the music supervisor.

Note that, regarding the music in the show, it was all by the aforementioned ALW and Glenn Slater, except for the following: “The Queen of the Night” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; “You’re in the Band” by ALW/Slater with quotes from Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Gillan, Roger Glover, Jon Lord, Ian Anderson Paice, Lou Reed, and Ludwig Van Beethoven; “In the End of Time” by Jack Black and Warren Fitzgerald; “Math is a Wonderful Thing” by Jack Black and Mike White; “School of Rock” by Mike White and Sammy James Jr,; “Amazing grace” by John Newton; and “Edge of Seventeen” by Stephanie Nicks, with kind permission. If you listen carefully, you’ll also hear a bit from ALW’s Song/Variations, as well as, of course, Cats.

Finally, turning to the production and creative team. The scenic and costume design by Anna Louizos worked well — I especially liked the rotating doors used for the Horace Green school and the way the blackboard was constructed; the rock outfits were also a hoot. Josh Marquette‘s hair design supported the costumes well.  Natasha Katz‘s lighting design worked well and established both mood and emotion, but she gets a “tsk, tsk” for letting her website expire. Mick Potter‘s sound design was defeated, alas, by the cavernous Pantages house: there were times that the lead could not be heard clearly, and there were other times that other characters words got lost. Part of that could be written off to understudy mic placement, but I missed the subtitles from Love Never Dies (about the only thing I missed about that show). Other production credits: David Ruttura [Associate Director]; Tara Rubin Casting [Casting]; Allied Touring [Tour Marketing/Press]; The Booking Group [Tour Direction]; Troika Entertainment LLC [Tour Management]; Brian Schrader [General Manager]; Maia Sutton [Company Manager]; Larry Smiglewski (FB) [Production Stage Manager]; Amanda Kosack [Stage Manager]; Abby L. Powers [Asst. Stage Manager]; and Neuro Tour [Physical Therapy].

School of Rock continues at the  Hollywood Pantages (FB) through May 27. Tickets are available through the Pantages Website/Ticketmaster. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar Events or TodayTix. This is a really fun show; go see it.


Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

Next weekend brings Soft Power  at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The middle of May brings Violet at Actors Co-op (FB).  The last weekend will hopefully bring a Nefesh Mountain concert at Temple Ramat Zion; the weekend itself is currently open.

June — ah, June. That, my friends, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), including The Story of My Life from Chromolume Theatre (FB). I’ve begun planning my scheduling using the HFF18 information, and it looks like we’ll be seeing 19-20 shows over the weekends in June. More on that when the schedule finalizes. Additionally in June we’re seeing the postponed Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), The Color Purple at  the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and possibly Do Re Mi at MTW. The latter, however, is on a Sunday night in Long Beach, and so Fringing may win out.

July will get busier again. It starts with the 50th Anniversary of Gindling Hilltop Camp, followed by On Your Feet at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The next weekend brings Jane Eyre The Musical at Chromolume Theatre (FB). The third weekend in July brings a Bat Mitzvah in Victorville, with Beauty and The Beast at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) that evening. The last weekend may be a Muse/ique (FB) show. August starts with Waitress at the Hollywood Pantages (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.