'School of Rock' doesn't teach any new lessons

Matthew Murphy

Matthew Murphy

Andrew Lloyd "Cats" Webber may not have seemed like the most obvious choice to adapt School of Rock into a musical, but he did help to invent the rock musical with the likes of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. That show made its first appearance as a "pop cantata" in 1968, when the idea that Broadway could rock was still new and exciting.

School of Rock

Orpheum Theatre

That was 50 years ago. Half a century prior to that, Dixieland jazz was still scandalous. Fifty years is a long time.

The decades weigh heavily on School of Rock, which was already a retro exercise when it was released as a movie in 2003. The film centered on Jack Black's character Dewey Finn, an axe-shredding substitute teacher whose devotion to the baroque pyrotechnics of stadium rock was already a winking anachronism.

Playwright Julian Fellowes -- the righteous scribe behind Downton Abbey and the Mary Poppins musical -- collaborated with Webber and lyricist Glenn Slater to bring School of Rock to Broadway in 2015, and a touring production is now anointing the Orpheum Theatre with the show's Minneapolis premiere. Keep your lighters in your pockets, please.

Star Rob Colletti does his best uncanny-valley Jack Black, but even more unnatural is the musical's completely unironic devotion to the idea that his grade-school students have been waiting for the spirit of AC/DC to liberate them from their overscheduled lives.

The baby boomers in Tuesday night's audience, who remember when it still seemed outrageous for the randy Angus Young to rip a solo in schoolboy togs, seemed to heartily enjoy Colletti's shenanigans. Their grandkids, who know guitar solos only as something their parents force them to listen to, seemed less captivated.

In the #MeToo era, the last thing we need is a musical that even jokes about how a young girl who can't sing will need to become a groupie to get in on the action. An ostensibly body-positive line about Mama Cass turns into an offensive gag about her choking on a sandwich, while the entire genre of hip-hop is nothing but a punch line. In the show's richest irony, Dewey dismisses a mention of Taylor Swift, who's by far this decade's most prominent pop star to regularly play an electric guitar.

Exacerbating the musical's tone-deaf approach is the fact that Dewey's the only character developed beyond a cardboard cutout, excepting his unlikely love interest, played by Lexie Dorsett Sharp channeling Joan Cusack. Webber sought to expand on the students' stories, but the onstage result is a flurry of interactions with parents whose inexplicable disappointment with their manifestly loving, gifted children comes across as downright sociopathic.

The musical leans heavily on our assumed sympathy for Dewey, as well as on our excitement about what Hennepin Theatre Trust CEO Mark Nerenhausen proudly describes as "musical theater's first-ever kids rock band playing their instruments live onstage." It's so important for us to understand that the kids are actually playing that Sir Andrew himself provides a pre-show announcement declaring the fact.

Do the kids rock? Sure, but purely on their teacher's terms. Despite Colletti's yeomanlike efforts, I guarantee you'll leave the Orpheum with a renewed appreciation for the subtle stylings of Jack Black, who can hog the spotlight in a band of children and somehow still make us smile. The show's child performers (notably Ava Briglia, as the imperious Summer) are nonetheless winning, even when they're being forced to make Barbra Streisand jokes.

"Stick It to the Man," the students defiantly sing in a stomping new anthem written by one of the world's wealthiest musicians. Dewey's right about one thing regarding these kids' musical careers: The only direction they can go is up after graduating from this awkward School of Rock.