Rocking, Rolling, and Playing Dead

Alex Brightman and the kid band from “School of Rock - The Musical.” | MATTHEW MURPHY

Alex Brightman and the kid band from “School of Rock – The Musical.” | MATTHEW MURPHY

Mark my words: Twenty years from now we’ll be seeing stories about young actors who were inspired to enter showbiz after seeing “School of Rock” on Broadway as a little kid. Not since “Annie” has there been such an adorable — or more talented — gaggle of moppets on stage or one more likely to inspire performing dreams or perhaps even bring back the garage band.

“School of Rock” with a book by Julian Fellowes, lyrics by Glenn Slater, and music by none other than Andrew Lloyd Webber, is the most conventional of musicals, but that works in its favor. The show is proof that the structure that dominated the musical for most of the 20th century can be wonderfully entertaining and a true hit in the right hands. And, yes, like “Annie,” it’s likely to stick around long enough that innumerable kids will grow up in the cast.

The show is, of course, based on the movie of the same name, but it was new to me. The plot concerns Dewey, who dreams of being a rock star but can’t even cut it in the band he created. As an iconic man-child, he’s reluctant to give up his dreams even in the face of economic disaster. He takes a phone call intended for his roommate and, out of desperation, passes himself off as a substitute teacher at a tony prep school. In classic fish-out-of-water style, he shakes up the world and ultimately transforms kids, parents, and the principal into people who break the shackles of their staid lives and rediscover the joy of living… through rock music, of course. In short, it’s a take on “Peter Pan” with a powerful backbeat.

“School of Rock” proves classic musical still works; Pacino sleep walks Mamet’s “China Doll”

Fellowes has created characters you will care about, and anyone who has ever given up on a dream will relate to its wholly believable conflict. Dewey’s roommate, Ned, gave up heavy metal to be a teacher, largely to please his girlfriend. The principal has pushed herself into a formal role that isn’t who she is at heart. The “villains” of the piece, such as the parents and Ned’s uptight girlfriend, are people who believe that achieving success comes at the cost of their spirit. It’s classic kid-lit, as Dewey liberates the youngsters and reminds the adults what’s really important in life. It doesn’t matter if it’s a story we’ve heard hundreds of times, when it’s as well done as this is we go for it every time.

Alex Brightman as Dewey is a sensation. His outstanding voice and boundless energy drive the show, which is exceedingly well orchestrated by director Laurence Connor. Brightman’s presence is nothing short of electric, and he manages to be both a breakout star and work brilliantly with the kids. He is, after all, more one of them than one of the adults, but it’s a rare actor who can do that so convincingly and seemingly so effortlessly.

Sierra Boggess as the principal gets to show off both her classic coloratura and her rock bona fides. Spencer Moses and Mamie Parris as Ned and his harpy of a girlfriend are both talented and appealing. The kids are all amazingly talented and actually play the instruments in the show. They’re all superb, but in particular Brandon Niederauer as Zack, a kid who wants to prove to his father that he should be heard; Bobbi Mackenzie as Tomika, an adopted child of gay parents who needs to overcome her shyness, and Jared Parker as Lawrence, a kid who was never cool until he joined the band, are standouts. At the performance I saw, Sofia Roma Rubino went on as Summer, the kid who wants the rules followed at all times. She was terrific, delivering an adult-sized performance that hit all the comic marks.

Lloyd Webber’s score is bright, buoyant, and intelligent, both embracing and lampooning the rock idiom, and as one would expect, able to hit every conventional emotional note.

This is classic Broadway entertainment perfectly targeted to a contemporary audience and clear evidence that traditional musicals can still rock the house.

Al Pacino in David Mamet’s “China Doll.” | JEREMY DANIEL

Al Pacino in David Mamet’s “China Doll.” | JEREMY DANIEL

Watching Al Pacino in the deadly and pointless “China Doll,” all I could think of was “Dog Day Afternoon.” I wanted to stand up and start yelling, “Kiss me, man…” If you know the movie, you know what comes next. If not, I’ll refer you to Netflix.

What you’ll also see in that film is Al Pacino at the height of his acting career, a powerfully focused performer fully inhabiting a role to chilling effect. You will not see him that way in “China Doll.” In fact, he stumbles through the role of beleaguered billionaire Mickey Ross with no clear focus and a two-note performance made up of somnambulism and whining.

He’s not helped in the least by David Mamet’s bland and infuriating play that has Mickey on the phone with different people for most of the time he’s on stage. There is also a young assistant named Carson, who acts largely as a foil to Mickey and whose 11th-hour explosion comes out of nowhere. Mickey is a repellant character who thinks his money insulates him from responsibility, a kind of ham-fisted parody of a certain presidential candidate. But Mickey doesn’t even have the bravado to be entertaining in that train-wreck way. So the play just spins along, going over and over the same territory — fighting with a congressman, trying to use his money and influence to protect the young woman he wants to marry as the regulators and the law are closing in.

Toward the end, Mamet tries to inject some social commentary, but it’s poorly done, unclear, and feels forced. It very soon becomes clear Mamet’s written what he hopes will be a tour-de-force for the actor who largely put him on the map some 30 years ago. Neither the play nor the star is up to the challenge.

Still, the very presence of Pacino means the show is largely selling out and is consequently virtually review-proof. Turning Broadway into a zoo for erstwhile movie stars is a proven financial tactic, but judging by the number of people who left at intermission at the performance I saw, they were more than ready to move on to the next cage.

SCHOOL OF ROCK | Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway at W. 51st St. | Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $79-$145 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 20 mins., with intermission

CHINA DOLL | Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 44th St. | Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $72-$152; telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 10 mins., with intermission

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