Twenty years ago, when Jack Black starred in the feel-good flick "School of Rock," about a gaggle of up-tight prep school pre-teens who find their identities in a rock band, we couldn't have imagined the future. A future in which real students had their education interrupted for more than two years by a global pandemic that shut everything down—a ghastly outcome even the most adventurous science fiction writers never contemplated.
So, it's fitting that the first full production appearing on Cain Park's Alma Theater stage in two years is "School of Rock," complete with a cast of 30 including a dozen youngsters of varying ages who are called upon to rock till they drop. Based on the film and featuring music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater and book by Julian Fellowes, this production succeeds even though there are dry patches.
The story's premise—that a recently fired rock sideman and slacker Dewey Finn, could impersonate a substitute teacher and show up at the tony Horace Green private school without credentials to teach—strains credulity. But hey, credulity took the last bus out of town with the pandemic, so count us in.
Homeless Dewey is bunking with wimpy buddy Ned and his strong-willed girlfriend Patty. While Ned is out, Dewey answers a phone call for Ned, who is a substitute teacher. Dewey decides to pretend to be Ned and grab some fast money, so the rock wastrel is soon facing a class of nerdy kids with high IQ's who only play classical music. This setup takes about 45 minutes and is a long slog due to some spongy writing, forgettable songs, and dialog scenes that lack pace.
Happily, that changes when Dewey finally decides to chuck the actual lesson plans and go with his instinct to turn his class into a rock entity that can compete in the upcoming Battle of the Bands. In "You're in the Band," Dewey assigns his students roles in this venture, from musicians to crew, and this production finds its legs and energy.
As Dewey, energetic Douglas F. Bailey II is a grunge-lookalike for Jack Black. He ignites the stage with his hell-bent singing style in songs like "Stick it to the Man," along with his cluelessly offensive demeanor when he's left without an axe in his hands. Hey, he's a rocker! His whole manner initially turns off the prim school principal Rosalie Mullins, until her secret passion for Stevie Nicks' music is revealed. In that role, Mikaela Ray has a lovely soprano voice, but she never creates a credible opposition for Dewey, which dampens the fun of their interactions and the transformations to come.
On the other hand, Danny Simpson makes the predictable Ned a treat and Brooke Jacob is the gal you love to hate as Patty. Among the kids who also play instruments, the standouts are Nathan Miller as Zack (electric guitar), Julia Leach as Katie (electric bass), and Jaiden Willis as Freddy (drums). Among those who play the other elementary school scholars/band members, most have their moments, such as Ethan Monaghan executing a full-body shiver that deserves to be a viral meme all by itself. The kids are sharp and on point start to finish, so take a bow: Nya Ku (Summer, the manager), David Jezek (Lawrence, keyboard), Lucas Klodnick, Harmoni Garrett, Annie Pelletier, Gigi Simone Pretzer, Kaitlyn Bartholomew, Ella Stec, and Sam Spencer.
If you want take children you know to a show, you should bring them down into the leafy environs of Cain Park and experience "School of Rock." It's not perfect and sure, it's predictable. But thanks to the skills of director Joanna May Cullinan and band conductor Bradley Wyner, "School" is family friendly with just enough sly winks. And when it comes to conveying joy, this show shreds.
School of Rock
Through June 26 at Cain Park, 14591 Superior Road between Taylor Rd. and Lee Rd in Cleveland Heights, 216-371-3000, www.cainpark.com.