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Stage Review

Amped-up and infectious, ‘School of Rock’ finds its groove

LeAnne Parks and Merritt David Janes in “School of Rock.”Evan Zimmerman-MurphyMade

Early on in “School of Rock’’ at the Boston Opera House, a starchy principal and the students at her elite prep school boast in song that: “Nothing will shake these ivied walls.’’

Nothing, that is, except for (wait for it) rock ’n’ roll.

That anarchic, wall-shaking power is embodied by a new addition to the faculty: a down-on-his-luck guitarist named Dewey Finn (an engagingly scruffy Merritt David Janes), who has employed a little sneaky subterfuge to land a job as a substitute teacher.

Under Dewey’s unorthodox tutelage, the once-insecure students are able to develop self-confidence, cut loose musically and emotionally, and cohere into a tight unit ready to compete in a high-stakes Battle of the Bands. Along the way, Dewey’s devil-may-care approach to education and life in general improbably rubs off on school principal Rosalie, played by Lexie Dorsett Sharp (who proves to be the secret weapon of “School of Rock’’).

But though it eventually delivers on its promise of a good time, this adaptation of the 2003 Jack Black movie — directed by Laurence Connor, with lyrics by Glenn Slater, a book by “Downton Abbey’’ creator Julian Fellowes (!), and high-impact music by Andrew Lloyd Webber (!!) — does take a while to find its groove and hit its stride.


The actors initially seem stranded on the sprawling Opera House stage, and the musical feels in sore need of film’s ability to compress space and tighten focus. Lines don’t quite land; chemistry is elusive; the vibe is slightly off. From start to finish, the show’s cliched rock-will-set-you-free message is delivered with all the subtlety of a drum solo. (Ditto for the pandering ad-libbed references to the Patriots’ recent Super Bowl victory.) Although “School of Rock’’ is not a jukebox musical, it has the overly schematic architecture that is a central flaw of that genre.


Nonetheless, as the pieces start to click into place, the sheer exuberance of the enterprise mostly wins you over. Composer Lloyd Webber successfully mines a musical vein much closer to his youthful origins (“Jesus Christ Superstar,’’ “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’’) than to the lugubrious spectacles (“Cats,’’ “The Phantom of the Opera,’’ “Love Never Dies’’) he later foisted on the world.

Alas, bookwriter Fellowes does not seize the chance to rectify the reductive view of the female characters adopted in the film version of “School of Rock.’’ The girls here are either officious busybodies or wallflowers, and the adult women are uptight scolds, such as Rosalie and Patty (Madison Micucci, saddled with a hopeless role), the hectoring, humorless girlfriend to Dewey’s nerdy friend Ned (Layne Roate).

Those stereotypes make the indelible performance by Sharp, as Rosalie, even more impressive. Sharp transcends the narrow conception of her character to deliver some of the funniest moments in the show — her reaction to hearing personal fave Stevie Nicks on a jukebox is priceless — and the actress even soars briefly but sublimely into the operatic stratosphere with a bit of the legendarily difficult Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.’’

This touring version of “School of Rock,’’ which last month wrapped up a three-year-plus run on Broadway, requires a solid cast of young performers, and it has one. Standouts include Sami Bray as the overachieving Summer, forever determined to earn a gold star for performance; Leanne Parks as Katie, a poker-faced bassist; Theo Mitchell-Penner as Lawrence, whose social awkwardness evaporates when he gets behind a keyboard; and Camille de la Cruz as ultra-shy Tomika, who displays her hidden power in a memorable solo.


As for Janes’s Dewey, an unmade bed in human form, he registers throughout “School of Rock’’ as a likeable rogue. Dewey is essentially a less dangerous version of Randle McMurphy from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’’ Like McMurphy, Dewey is a force for disruption and liberation.

But Janes’s portrayal also suggests, somewhat touchingly, that Dewey shares with his pubescent charges a reliance on dreams and fantasy that serve to keep disheartening reality at bay. With the boisterous Act 1 highlight “Stick It to the Man’’ (a song that will be reprised a couple more times before the show is over), Dewey and the kids become as one. Hey, everybody wants to be a rock star.


Book by Julian Fellowes. Lyrics by Glenn Slater. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed by Laurence Connor. Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Boston Opera House, through Feb. 24. Tickets start at $44.50, 800-982-2787,

Don Aucoin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin.