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Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond
Theater review:

'School of Rock' gives upbeat lessons on growing up, finding your voice

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

“School of Rock,” the musical in session at the Hippodrome Theatre through the weekend, is for every kid (or former kid) who ever felt un-cool, un-liked. It’s also for every adult who might have forgotten how important it is to listen, truly listen, to kids once in a while.

“School of Rock” is the equivalent of the big, goofy class clown, determined to get attention, to shake up the natural order of things. And, as the snappy national touring production of the musical demonstrates, a shake-up can be fun, especially when it comes with plenty of rattle and roll.

Adapted from the 2005 movie of the same name, “School of Rock” has a generally sturdy book by Julian Fellowes (of “Downton Abbey” fame), mostly effective lyrics by Glenn Slater and a high-energy score by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

While the music is new, the plot sticks essentially to the original: A schlubby rock star wannabe named Dewey fakes his way into a substitute teaching gig at a stuffy prep school to earn rent money, then seeks to turn his unsuspecting students into viable rockers who can “stick it to the man” and compete in a battle of the bands.

You don’t need to be familiar with the film to guess where every scene is headed, how every character will turn out.

Of course, the kids reveal mighty talents when given the chance to come out of their shells. Of course, the uptight principal is really a rebellious fun-seeker behind the glasses and tightly pinned hair.

Of course, the stern parents are horrified when they learn what’s happening at school — but, of course, they need to hear only four bars of a hard-driving rock tune performed by their children before suddenly loosening up and completely changing their tunes.

Giving all these obvious bits of business a welcome kick is some very funny dialogue, especially for the devilish Dewey, whose repartee deflates stuffy adults or attitudinal kids with equal snap. Several of the young folks deliver some pretty good lines lines, too (one about Botox gets a particularly big laugh).

The music also keeps things moving along briskly. But adept as he famously is at harvesting ear-worms, Lloyd Webber comes up rather dry this time; the songs sound more proficient than distinctive. Still, the score clicks neatly into the big picture.

There’s room for some droll musical humor along the way. When the principal attempts the Queen of the Night’s treacherous aria from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” the high notes she can’t reach are provided by a student playing a triangle.

And Lloyd Webber’s not above poking fun at himself: One of the kids tries out for Dewey’s band by hideously wailing a bit of “Memory” from “Cats.”

The cast, directed by Laurence Connor, brings such flair to everything that it’s easy to go with the dynamic flow. It’s even easier when the kids are at the forefront. The young actors do their own singing and intrument-playing, and do it with a contagious enthusiasm. (Too bad the amplification swallows up a good portion of their words.)

Rob Colletti makes a persuasive pied piper-type as Dewey, throwing himself into the physical shtick with great flair and, above all, revealing something genuine and endearing about the character.

Lexie Dorsett Sharp pushes the tough principal act a little too harshly, but reins the portrayal in nicely for the Act 2 ballad “Where Did the Rock Go?” The other adult actors do solid work in the production, which benefits from smoothly shifting sets designed by Anna Louizos and vibrantly lit by Natasha Katz.

At a time when going to school can be a fearful thing, there’s something reassuring about a musical that presents a vision of students feeling so safe, creative and popular.

‘School of Rock’ runs through March 25 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. Call 800-982-2787, or go to ticketmaster.com.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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