Andrew Lloyd Webber hasn’t been a shiny wagon of musical-comedy fun since, perhaps, never. Even in his very good old days, including the 1970 breakthrough of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the structures were pop operatic and the intentions epic.
After a string of major flops, however, here he improbably is with “School of Rock,” a high-energy, enjoyable, unrelentingly eager-to-please adaptation of the much-loved 2003 movie about an irrepressible loser of a rocker who discovers himself and teaches a happy lesson by herding an uptight bunch of prep-school kids into a hard-rock band.
The first thing to know is that the kids, cast through a high-profile talent search, are genuine children who play their own instruments, and they’re all terrific. The other essential fact is that the substitute teacher, a character indelibly stamped on the film by Jack Black, has been shrewdly honored here by Alex Brightman, a helium balloon of a force that can bounce off walls and manage tender emotions with equal conviction.
The production, directed by Laurence Connor (the current “Les Miserables”), is as slick and sure of itself as if it had been running at the Winter Garden Theatre since Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” closed 15 years ago. Three of the songs, including the title number and Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen,” come from the movie, though you wouldn’t know Lloyd Webber didn’t write them all unless you read the very small print in the back of the program. Also, oddly enough, the school principal (a game Sierra Boggess) gets valiantly through the ultra-daunting “Queen of the Night” aria from Mozart’s “Magic Flute.”
The rest of the songs are hard-rocking and comfortable originals, with easygoing lyrics by Glenn Slater. Except for the occasional flash of chords from “Superstar,” one would be hard-pressed to recognize the chameleonic voice of the creator of “Phantom of the Opera” or “Sunset Boulevard.” Particularly amusing — from a billionaire baron officially dubbed Lord Lloyd Webber — are the recurring lyrics exhorting the kids to “sock it to the man.”
The book by Julian Fellowes (get this resumé — “Downton Abbey” and Broadway’s “Mary Poppins”) moves amiably along with less of the film’s history of rock and more family back story for the kids, which works fine. Anna Louizos’ handsome sets reflect both the show’s privilege and the grunge, and her costumes manage to seem hip without oversexualizing the youngsters.
I wish all this could have been done without making classical music seem uncool. A school that could do both would really rock.