Before I saw School of Rock on Broadway, I did not envy Alex Brightman his job.
The man, I knew, didn’t just have to step into the shoes of Jack Black, he had to step into his Jack Black-est pair of shoes — a role written for the madcap entertainer’s specific brand of mischievous comedy and unique musical talents. Indeed, Dewey Finn, the goofy, hard-rocking protagonist of Mike White’s 2003 film is Black incarnate. Any other performer attempting to follow such an act is facing an uphill battle.
Which is why it was so remarkable, ultimately, watching Brightman sing and dance and rock out, how much I did envy him. The guy has such a great time up there, it’s hard not to want to be in his place.
In a situation like this one, Brightman’s key to success is to strike a balance between homage and invention — he can’t be too much like Black’s Dewey, or too much unlike him —and he does so beautifully. His Dewey is a little more jocular than Black’s, a little more physical, but just as earnest.
The show itself succeeds on similar terms, by mixing all the heart and humor of the original with a good dose of musical theatre energy. Director Laurence Connor and his creative team clearly studied their source material, but it seems obvious they spent just as much time thinking about how to make its transition to the stage a seamless one.
Not that School of Rock has too much stacked against it in this respect. The movie already has good music, bold characters and a quick tempo. The underdog story of a washed-up rocker inspiring a bunch of repressed prep school kids, moreover, is a natural fit for the stage, and writer Julian Fellowes had the good sense to not mess with its core. In fact, diehard fans of the film will recognize about 90 percent of what they loved from the original, including many jokes and musical numbers taken word for word.
There’s also the same ragtag band of gifted munchkins with rock and roll dreams. Some of their backstories are slightly tweaked here, mostly for the better. Tamika (Bobbi MacKenzie), for instance, trades in her anxiety about her weight for the woes of a new kid at school. Other characters have become more humanized. The effeminate Billy (Luca Padovan), a purely comic character in the film, gets a dose of pathos when we meet his domineering dad. The whole group of youngsters gets the high-octane Broadway treatment at times, particularly in dance-y numbers when they’re stomping, shouting, and clenching their little fists with adolescent rage. There’s a not entirely savory frenetic quality at moments like these, which gave me flashbacks to Matilda I could have done without.
The figure who gets the biggest makeover, though — ultimately, something of a botched one — is the school’s hilariously buttoned up principal, Rosalie (Sierra Bogges), who in this lazy re-imagining turns into something altogether mushier. In the film, she’s breaks out of her shell slightly but never fully and her odd flirtation with Dewey is a plot driver, but slightly ambiguous. Here, she becomes a legitimate love interest, and in one awkward and stylistically out of place number, she gets a sob story to explain her severe sensibility. Bogges goes along with it gamely, but the whole scenario feels like a theatre graft that just won’t take.
Slip-ups like these are a rarity, however, and they aren’t bad enough to take away from what makes School of Rock an epic ride.