"School of Rock" sticks it to the man in new stage musical

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NEW YORK — Hard rock's two fingered hand gesture is back on Broadway, thanks to an English lord.

The crowd-pleasing, upbeat musical based on the beloved film "School of Rock" opened Sunday at the Winter Garden Theatre with a wondrously rebellious spirit and a superb cast.

This sweet, well-constructed musical left a recent preview audience cheering, head-banging and flashing the hand signal known as the "devil's sign," with index and pinky fingers extended. Metal fans who mourned the passing of "Rock of Ages" have a new place to rock out.

The stage version stays close to the plot of the Jack Black-led 2003 film, in which a wannabe rocker who hopes to one day "stick it to the Man" enlists his fifth-graders to form a rock group and conquer the Battle of the Bands.

This time, the lesson in anarchic fun is a bunch of Men Who Should Be Having it Stuck To, namely the legendary songwriter Andrew Lloyd Webber and the "Downton Abby" creator Julian Fellowes as book writer. Both are in the House of Lords, for God's sake.

It is treacherous water for a pair of lords to swim: The film was a star vehicle for Black and virtually a musical already, with riffs or songs by The Doors, AC/DC, Stevie Nicks and Led Zeppelin, among others. Webber blasted the theatrical doors down to let rock in with such shows as "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Cats" but how could he handle this assignment?

Not too badly, it turns out. While leaning a little bit too much on his new song "Stick It to the Man," Webber, with lyricist Glenn Slater, turns in some perfectly solid mainstream rock-ish anthems in "Mount Rock" and "If Only You Would Listen." He even mocks the genre with "I'm Too Hot for You."

But he also graciously allows the film's best song, "School of Rock" — with its ooh-la-la and AC/DC-like lick — to be a highlight, and bought the rights to "Edge of Seventeen" by Stevie Nicks, which is key to a plot point. That means that two of the musical's best songs have not been written by the composer.

No matter. A heartwarming story and a stage full of pre-pubescent kids who know their way around an amp prove irresistible. Alex Brightman in the Jack Black role may not have the film star's crazed menace but he shares his goofy, sweet spirit. Brightman is a ball of energy onstage and seems to be having a ball. It's infectious.

Sierra Boggess, as the uptight school principal, has brilliantly been allowed to tap into her operatic background and also deliver a truly wondrous ballad in "Where Did the Rock Go?" The only other woman to rival her onstage is the pig-tailed bass player Evie Dolan, a funky burst of sunlight who is about 10. Other kid standouts are Brandon Niederauer, who melts faces off with his axe, and Bobbi MacKenzie does it with her lungs.

Fellowes has been so faithful to the film's story that you may wonder why he even gets a credit, with whole sections of dialogue lifted word-for-word and the plot pretty much identical. True, he's added a sly romantic angle and a fun "Guitar Hero" section, plus thrown in a few jokes about gluten-free food, Facebook and the Kardashians, but it's hard to detect a whole lot of original work here.

That's not the case for director Laurence Connor, who leads a crisp, snappy show that neither gets bogged down in irrelevant secondary stories or in easy manipulation, despite having a stage full of cute kids, who all play instruments.

Webber and Fellowes have nicely added a bit of focus to the frustrations faced by over-scheduled, stressed-out children, making "School of Rock" the third musical on Broadway featuring rebellious kids in school uniforms after "Matilda" and "Spring Awakening."

The answer to that is simple: Bring them to the Winter Garden Theatre. They'll leave pumping their fists in the air.


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