He's Committing Fraud, but the Kids Love Him

A dozen pint-sized and pitch-perfect performers bring heart to “School of Rock,” the new musical based on Richard Linklater’s movie about a slovenly substitute teacher who motivates his prep school fifth-graders to compete in a Battle of the Bands.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s first new work for Broadway in a decade is an otherwise workaday screen-to-stage adaptation, with a generous (and, I’m guessing, hoarse after every show) lead actor and faithful, if prosaic book by an unlikely writer—“Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes. It’s now open at the Winter Garden Theatre.

In a recorded announcement before curtain, composer Webber explains that members of his youthful cast play their own instruments. Halfway into the first act, we’re privy to their talents, in a Horace Green School classroom, as Dewey Finn (Alex Brightman) singles out students to tell them: “You’re in the Band.”

Cue the cute kids and their bass guitars! In this, and other sincere moments, “School of Rock” earns a gold star.

Until then, we tread familiar territory, as the slouchy wannabe rocker and freeloader is warned to pay rent or vamoose from the apartment he’s sharing with out-of-work academic Ned Schneebly (Spencer Moses) and Ned’s overbearing girlfriend (Mamie Parris).

Dewey, as did Jack Black before him, “borrows” Ned’s identity and insinuates himself into the goings-on at Horace Green, where he wins over the student body with his message that the path to self-discovery lies in guitar-shredding rock. All this, while shielding his “lesson plan” from do-right principal Rosalie Mullins (Sierra Boggess) and the other stuffy academics.

Brightman, who has toiled in supporting parts on mega-hits such as “Wicked” and “Matilda,” takes the overgrown man-child and makes him perfectly likable, never mind that Dewey has several felonies under his belt by intermission. Brightman’s performance is frenetic and over-the-top.

Kids aside, Dewey also proves to have a knack for bringing adults out of their shells. That’s how Principal Mullins ends up at a local roadhouse, singing Stevie Nicks. Boggess (seen recently in “It Shoulda Been You”) is good, if perhaps on the young side to play the school marm. There’s nothing in the character that makes Rosalie’s eventual transition from “uptight” to “free-spirited” particularly convincing.

Among the young performers, Brandon Niederauer is awesome on electric guitar. Dante Mellucci brings adult-like attitude to his drumming. Evie Dolan, as a pig-tailed bassist, could step into a Go-Go's cover band tomorrow. Vocalist Bobbi Mackenzie sings a regal “Amazing Grace.”

The student characters in Fellowes’s book sometimes verge on stock depictions, but the parents fully cross the line: the father too busy working to realize his son needs attention, and so on.

Moses and Parris do a nice job driving the mechanics of the story, though their characters are cartoons.

Laurence Connor, whose directing credits include Broadway’s current “Les Miserables” revival, keeps things moving briskly.

Webber’s rock musicals (“Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Joseph …”) are a polarizing bunch. I don’t imagine most of the big numbers here will enjoy an afterlife; they’re inferior to his earlier confections. Or, perhaps I need to hear them a few more times—orchestrations frequently drowned out actors, and I wasn’t always sure what was being said.

You suspend disbelief to appreciate “School of Rock,” which is set in a world where a guy can take over a room full of pre-teens without making a list of local predators. The story doesn’t particularly resonate for me, but I won’t soon forget the feel-good vibe radiating off the talented young performers after their turns in the final competition.

“School of Rock,” with an open-ended run at the Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway. Tickets: $59-$145. Call 212-239-6200.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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