Talented kids of ‘School of Rock’ make an otherwise lackluster production sing

The 2003 film “School of Rock” — written by Mike White, directed by Austin’s own Richard Linklater and starring Jack Black — was a funny, heartfelt movie that cleverly deconstructed the Hollywood cliché of the “inspiring teacher,” as seen in films like “Dead Poets Society” and “To Sir, with Love.” Unexpectedly, in 2015 composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyricist Glenn Slater and writer Julian Fellowes turned the film into a Broadway musical. Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts have now brought that musical to Austin, playing through Feb. 18 at Bass Concert Hall.

Contributed by Matthew Murphy

The story of “School of Rock” follows that of the film. Out-of-work moocher Dewey Finn pretends to be a substitute teacher at a prestigious prep school, only to quickly find himself in over his head. Instead of inspiring the kids in his class through reading, writing and arithmetic, he reaches out to them through music and forms them into a rock band so that they can compete in an impending Battle of the Bands competition.

Both the film and the musical reach some pretty sentimental places with this plot, but it works much better on the screen than on the stage. Whereas the film plays around with its borderline-intolerable protagonist in order to make a counterpoint to the inspiring teacher we’ve all seen in a hundred previous films, the musical doesn’t have the same well to pull from; previous Broadway shows on the subject basically begin and end with “The Sound of Music.”

As a result, much of what makes the film funny, charming and insightful feels goofy, cynical, or even downright offensive on the stage. For example, the panoply of shrewish, killjoy females, of all ages, played against the fun-loving men gets old quickly (though it should be noted that some of these characterizations are upended as the play goes on).

Where this production of “School of Rock” absolutely excels, though, is in any moment that features Dewey’s class of fiercely talented students. Rob Colletti, as Dewey, is at his strongest when interacting with these kids, whom director Laurence Connor wisely lets act like actual kids, goofing off in the background and shifting from sullen to over-excited on a dime. JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography is positively brilliant, adapting the carefree dancing style of actual children to the Broadway stage; picture the dancing kids from the “Peanuts” cartoons, but with a bit more panache.

The most impressive aspect of “School of Rock” — indeed, a prerecorded message from Andrew Lloyd Webber himself reminds of this at the start of the show — is that the children actually play their own rock instruments. Their performances bristle with electricity and manic, youthful energy; it’s no surprise that the Battle of the Bands at the end of the play is the show’s highlight.

As a play, “School of Rock” is a bit of a mess. With a script that doesn’t translate well from film to stage, mostly unforgettable musical numbers and an over-reliance on broad caricatures, it’s fun to watch but ultimately rather uninspired.

As a showcase for these amazing young performers, though, it is delight to watch, as well as a great way to introduce children to Broadway through familiar-sounding music and a group of precocious protagonists who are dealing with what will be, for them, familiar issues. “School of Rock” may not be Broadway gold, but it is something that’s fun for the kids both on the stage and in the audience.

‘SCHOOL OF ROCK’
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 14-17, 2 p.m. Feb. 17, 1 and 7 p.m. Feb. 18
Where: Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
Cost: $30-$135
Information: texasperformingarts.org