School of Rock, directed by Laurence Connor at the Pantages Theatre, doesn't bowl you over with its mostly forgettable music. What it does do is deliver well-staged and well-executed family entertainment, showcasing an impressive ensemble of preteen actors who sing, dance and act up a storm. The grown-ups are good, too.
Adapted from the 2003 movie starring Jack Black, this touring production features a relatable Rob Colletti as Dewey Finn (Black’s character), a roly-poly slacker and wannabe rock star who’s booted from his band after he messes up big during a performance. Broke and facing eviction, he impersonates his friend Ned (Matt Bittner) to finagle a job as a substitute teacher in a tony prep school.
This Philistinian employment is totally anathema to the undisciplined Dewey, and he’s immediately called out by his pupils, a restrained and serious-minded group of privileged kids. His chief challenger is a whip-smart little girl, Summer (Iara Nemirofsky), who confronts him directly, then reports his antics to the school’s buttoned-up principal, Rosalie (Lexie Dorsett Sharp). Although Rosalie brushes aside Summer’s allegations, she suspiciously stalks Dewey’s classroom and becomes his imperious nemesis until (predictably) she lets down her hair.
In a short space of time, Dewey has the kids on his side and has persuaded them to set aside math and social studies to form a rock band. To help gain the audience's support for this, there are a series of short scenes in which individual children are seen with their respective parents — narrow-minded people who think music is a waste of time or who are trying to mold their offspring in their own image. (A macho dad wants his son to watch football when the boy would rather read Vanity Fair; an investment banker will hear nothing of his son’s talents on the guitar.)
Featuring new music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater and a book by Julian Fellowes (the creator-writer of Downton Abbey), School of Rock strives to celebrate subversion of the status quo. It’s hard not to feel equivocal about this. Dewey may not be a villain, exactly, but he does mooch off friends and lie to them. And his disdain and ignorance for all things not rock & roll pretty much define him as a limited and immature guy.
On the other hand, it’s easy to get behind his love of music and self-expression, and his in-your-face defiance of the Establishment. These passions are distilled in the show’s sole memorable song, “Stick It to the Man,” a catchy ensemble number with an enticing beat that stays with you, and prompts some exuberant dancing (choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter) from the on-point youthful ensemble.
As Dewey, Colletti moves agilely despite his heft, and his full-throttled obstreperousness, though at times off-putting, adds presence and punch. The talented Sharp creates a crisp comic caricature of every school bureaucrat you’ve ever despised, then wins you over with her silvery vocals and swishy hips. Bittner is solid and likable as Dewey’s long-suffering friend; so are all the other adult actors, who alternate as faculty members or parents.
But my special accolades go to the youngsters, each one of whom is as disciplined as any seasoned professional, whether they’re center stage or off to the side, doing whatever they need to do to stay in character. The quality of their work speaks to Connor’s direction. And the musical performances of some of those playing an instrument, including Gilberto Moretti Hamilton on percussion, Theo Mitchell-Penner on keyboard, Theodora Silverman on bass and — most outstanding — Vincent Molden on electric guitar, propel you into wow territory.
School of Rock, Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; through May 27; (800) 982-2787, hollywoodpantages.com.