Review: School of Rock

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The tradition of breaking with tradition – that’s what is at the heart of the light-hearted and playful romp School of Rock. I like this better than anything composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has written since he split with lyricist Tim Rice in the late 1970s, partly because Webber is clearly having a blast returning to his rock roots, and partly because it celebrates rock’s spirit of adolescent rebellion and individualism.

I’m told that the Julian Fellowes book for School of Rock follows the film very closely (haven’t seen the film). It focuses on Dewey Finn, a rock and roll true believer, who fakes his way into a job as a substitute teacher to pay the rent. The only subject he knows well enough to teach is rock itself, especially its defiant spirit of “sticking it to the man.” Which (of course) turns out to be exactly what his young charges needed most.

Most of Webber’s songs are loving and even witty pastiches of various rock styles since the 1960s, leaning towards poppy glam metal. They’re definitely fun, if not as instantly memorable as, say, most of Jesus Christ Superstar. The sound design is a problem; Glenn Slater’s lyrics aren’t always easy to make out in the murky mix. This is less of a problem than one might think: the songs’ shouted and repeated song titles tell you 90% of what you need to know. But still….

As Dewey, Alex Brightman movingly undergoes a transformation from boorishly self-centered would-be rock god to a still-rebellious but more thoughtful “think of the kids” leader. He knows who the real stars of this show are – the kids. They are all real instrumental and/or vocal virtuosos, especially Brandon Niederauer, a genuine guitar prodigy. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Forbidden Broadway Alive and Kicking

Forbidden Broadway has relentlessly and lovingly assaulted the Great White Way since 1982, when Gerard Alessandrini, then a struggling singer-actor, created the first edition for himself and his friends to perform. It lampooned the Broadway shows and stars of the day – to put things in perspective that was the year Cats (a top Alessandrini target) opened, and Ethel Merman (who has turned up frequently in the revue over the years) still had two years to live.

After a break between 2009 and now, Forbidden Broadway is back with a vengeance. The show, as always, is wickedly clever from early on: A quartet wanders around the theatre district, stumbling down the aisle, saying “isn’t this the theatre where Forbidden Broadway used to play?” and then break into music from Brigadoon – a distant chorus chanting “Broadway’s on the brink-of-doom, brink-of-doom.”

The revival of Evita is the first proper target, featuring Ricky Martin singing “Living Evita Loca” and Elena Rogers singing of her “total lack of star quality” to the tune of “Buenos Aires”. Next up is Nice Work if You Can Get It, with the sharpest barbs reserved for Matthew Broderick (too easy?). Alessandrini always has an obvious soft spot for certain shows, and this season it’s Newsies, which he mostly dishes for its almost-too-frenetic energy. Some of the harshest barbs go to Once, though there’s some affectionate spoofing of Steven Hoggett’s angular choreography.

Act Two has Julie Taymor and Bono engaging a superhero battle, the gals from Smash fretting over the future of their series, a sharp critique of Tracie Bennett from Judy Garland herself and a Mormon parody which is mostly about Parker and Stone counting their money. The finale, as often is the case for Forbidden Broadway, is a love note to the future of musical theater. Alessandrini seems to see plenty of hope (which he didn’t in 1982), and that’s a very good sign.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Evita

This is a solid but far from electrifying production of what may be Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s strongest score. Evita tells the story of Eva Perón, the charismatic wife of authoritarian Argentinian president Juan Perón. Born poor in the slums of the provincial town of Junín, María Eva Duarte became a radio star, and married Perón when he was just a rising political star. We see her story through the eyes of a cynical leftist named Che.

Director Michael Grandage is a British master of realism – his productions of Red and Frost/Nixon were powerful for that very reason. His style also works very well for classical theatre, which has meant wonderful, realism-inflected versions of Hamlet and Mary Stuart. But Evita isn’t realism, and it isn’t classical. So what we have here is great talent largely misapplied.

I’m not saying that Grandage’s approach bears no fruit here: he brings out Eva’s humanity and vulnerability in new ways and, together with set designer Christopher Oram, makes dramatic use of Argentina’s beautiful architecture. It’s successful in its way, but nonetheless seems to somewhat miss the point.

Evita has a definite attitude about Eva, expressed not only through acerbic commentary Time Rice wrote for Che, but also through Webber’s Wagnerian use of musical themes to symbolize assorted ideas and parts of society. Grandage largely ignores these cues, giving us big production numbers (choreographed by a tango-happy Rob Ashford) that lack the necessary tension, danger and excitement.

One number in the second act “And the Money Kept Rolling In” really explodes, but does that in part because Grandage and Ashford have been inexplicably holding back until that point. Evita has multiple climaxes (ahem) and building to just one in the second act makes zero sense to me.

All that said, the leads are working hard in their assignments. Ricky Martin makes a very ingratiating Che, which does help tell the story with a certain clarity. The diminutive Elena Rogers is physically similar to historical Eva (more striking and glamorous than truly gorgeous), and puts her whole heart into acting the role, even if vocally she doesn’t quite have the belting power the part so desperately needs. Michael Cerveris successfully captures both Perón’s macho authority and his genuine tenderness toward Eva.

This is a good, but not great Evita. I liked it, but I really wish I had loved it.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Jesus Christ Superstar

I’ve always preferred the early “rock operas” of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice to Webber’s later Rice-less musicals. So I’m thrilled that Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita are back on the boards this season. And with director Des McAnuff’s lean and propulsive production of Superstar, so far one out of the two is strongly represented on the Main Stem.

Of course the title is a bit of a cheat; Superstar actually focuses on Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would ultimately betray Jesus. The musical is based very loosely on the Gospels’ account of the last week of Jesus’ life.

One of McAnuff’s more prominent gifts as a director is his ability to keep things kinetic and moving, and that’s true in spades here. Choreographer Lisa Shriver kicks it up even further, taking his stage pictures and animating them with incredibly energetic rhythm. The metallic spareness of Robert Brill’s set, together with Howell Binkley’s expressionistic lights, reinforces the “rock concert” atmosphere.

Webber’s music for Superstar is full of youthful vitality (he was 21 when the hit concept album was released in 1969), and it is powerfully sung by an appropriately young cast. The parts of Jesus and Judas were originally sung by proto-heavy metal screamers Ian Gillian and Murray Head, respectively. This production’s Paul Nolan (Jesus) and Josh Young (Judas) have similarly titanium-plated high tenor voices – they match Gillian and Head for passion, and exceed them for musicality, expression and precision.

This production’s Mary Magdelene, Chilina Kennedy, gives a movingly understated interpretation of the show’s big hit “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. McAnuff has also given her character some interesting interactions with Judas that deepen the most underwritten of the three leads, and she plays it well.

There’s been some say that this production isn’t campy enough. To which I say, if you are coming to Superstar for camp, oh honey you are barking up the wrong tree. There is only one intentionally campy song in the whole show, “Herod’s Song”, and even that has a bit of a dark, vicious edge. Any other camp that one might find here comes from the fact that the show is so earnestly serious.

I am the first to defend intentional camp that is intelligently done. But as a director I have to say that condescending to the material you are working on is never a good choice. McAnuff rightly runs with Superstar‘s hard-driving seriousness, and it’s actually a much more entertaining production for that very reason.

For tickets, click here.