'School of Rock' will have you pumping your devil-horns in the air

Over the past 12 months, the Fairwinds Broadway series brought several unsatisfying adaptations of beloved films to Orlando’s Dr. Phillips Center (I’m looking at you, Little Mermaid and Finding Neverland), so I was understandably apprehensive about ending my theater-going year with yet another awful screen-to-stage musical. Merrily, instead of the lump of coal I feared, School of Rock turns out to be more like a fresh-baked fruitcake: not what you really wanted to unwrap, but surprisingly easy to swallow.

Based on the 2003 film starring Jack Black, School of Rock follows wannabe guitar god Dewey (Rob Colletti; Merrit David Janes at select performances), a portly perpetual adolescent who impersonates his nerdy roommate Ned (Matt Bittner) in order to earn rent money as a substitute teacher in an upper-crust Manhattan preparatory school.

Though unstable and unqualified, Dewey unexpectedly connects with his overstressed students by forming a rock band, roiling the prep school’s uptight Principal Mullins (Lexie Dorsett Sharp) and enraging Ned’s jealous girlfriend Patty (Emily Borromeo). The play, like the film, climaxes in a Battle of the Bands, where Dewey and the kids compete to overcome the doubting adults’ objections.

School of Rock is a distinctly American story, so the idea of it being adapted by the iconic West End composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, in collaboration with Julian Fellowes (writer of the quintessentially English Downton Abbey) certainly raised some eyebrows. In transferring it to the stage, the basic beats of Mike White’s screenplay have been faithfully preserved, along with three memorable songs originally written for the movie. Webber and lyricist Glen Slater replaced the AC/DC and other classic hits that made up the rest of the film’s soundtrack with a few credible hard-rock anthems (“Stick It to the Man” will be stuck in your head for days after repeated reprises), and several meh midtempo ballads that are at least better than the duo’s dire Love Never Dies score.

Fellowes’ book likewise preserves all the movie’s key elements, but eliminates many its charming rough edges, replacing original director Richard Linklater’s handmade quirkiness with Hallmark homilies and one-dimensional characters. There’s no spark to Dewey’s shoehorned-in romance with Mullins, and the script’s dated gay stereotypes are grating.

The production’s child stars, who play their own instruments live, are all impressively talented, but each is given only a single simplistic note to play – bossy Summer (Ava Briglia), insecure Lawrence (Theo Mitchell-Penner), shy Tomika (Gianna Harris) – accompanied by a pat plot resolution. It doesn’t help that JoAnn M. Hunter’s appropriately juvenile jumping choreography murders their already-dicey diction, and director Laurence Conner insistently sacrifices opportunities for subtle moments in favor of incessant movement and shouting.

If not for the coronary-inducing exuberance of Colletti’s starring performance, School of Rock would probably be a slog to sit through. Physically, he’s a dead ringer for Dan Fogler from The Goldbergs; vocally, he does an eerily accurate impersonation of Jack Black’s multi-octave range, sliding from a guttural growl to a Tenacious D-worthy falsetto with winking flair. By the title-track finale, which features Colletti jamming away in a plaid schoolgirl skort and knee socks, you’ll be pumping your devil-horns in the air, or there just ain’t rock & roll in your soul.

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