IVINS — Do you want to see the original Broadway understudy for Dewey Finn perform the role he did 140 times in New York? Of course you do! And you can do it at Tuacahn, which is running School of Rock right now.
Jonathan Wagner leads the cast as a wannabe rock star mooching off his high school friend for a place to live. When the opportunity arrives for him to make a few bucks assuming his roommate’s identity as a teacher, who is he to say no? Before long, he turns his prep school kids into the rock band of his dreams—with him as frontman, of course.
The delightful premise comes from the familiar 2003 film written by Mike White and starring Jack Black. Wagner definitely had some Black in his delivery—it’s almost impossible to avoid it since Black ad-libbed so much of the film in his distinctive style.
The first thing I noticed is the stage, which shrunk Tuacahn’s massive area to a typical broadway size. Album covers beamed out from brick wall scenery, and the entire set seemed to brim with electricity in anticipation of the show’s forthcoming electric guitar solos.
An off-stage orchestra provided much of the music, with some of it also being played onstage. The students were proficient at their instruments, although there were a couple times that the adults’ instruments (like Wagner’s guitar and a faculty member’s bagpipes) were too clearly performed off-stage. I was a little surprised Wagner couldn’t rip it himself having done the show on Broadway.
I last reviewed School of Rock when the national Broadway production came to Eccles in 2019, and Tuacahn’s version was better in every way. “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock,” was a blast to start the show. The dancing groupies, pyro and flying dummies flying off of mountains were loads of fun and gave the scene the bigness it demands. (Scenery was by Paul Black and tech was by Wes Hamblin.) “You’re In The Band,” was a clever and thoroughly entertaining way to introduce the skills of the students, and the young actors’ voices on the touching, “If Only You Would Listen,” were super tight. You’d be hard pressed to find such uniform delivery in most churches in America.
Wagner was well matched by Alexandra Melrose as frumpy principal Rosalie Mullins. Melrose had excellent stage present and a tremendous voice. All of the young actors were superb. I particularly enjoyed Grant Westcott as fashionista Billy Sanford and Adrienne Amanda Morrow as drummer Freddy Hamilton. Morrow gave a confident, natural-feeling performance that seemed effortless.
The show would benefit in placing itself in 2003 when the movie came out rather than in 2021. Modern references to Tik Tok, equal pay, and RGB jarred against leatherclad rock bands and compact discs, both of which aren’t around today. Seriously, if a teacher gave out CDs as homework like Dewey does, kids would say, “What are these things?”
The book by Julian Fellows has some other stuff that doesn’t work. Why are all the main parents male? And the plot holes when Dewey is outed as a fraud are insane: we’re supposed to believe that in a single elementary school room, twenty children escaped from their parents without them even noticing? Huh?
Before the show, artistic director Scott S. Anderson took to the stage to mention they had limited rehearsals due to an unusual amount of rain in Southern Utah, and there were some significant technical problems. Wagner’s mic failed in the middle of a number, and a black-clad tech rushed onstage and handed him a handheld one. Amazingly, Wagner still hit his marks and performed the rest of the scene one handed. In another part, he had to improvise for about 20-30 seconds while scenery blocked actors from entering the stage. He covered it so well (“Where are my students? Run, children, run faster!”) that my friend next to me didn’t even notice.
In the most delightful tech mishap, Melrose‘s high-heeled shoe stuck into the stage, leaving her stranded. Wagner kneeled down and offered it to her Cinderella style, to which she aptly replied “Yes, it fits!” (Costumes were by Leon Wiebers.) The way the cast, particularly Wagner and Melrose, covered technical difficulties was the mark of professionals working at a high level.
School of Rock features a few musical gems from the movie, but mostly consists of new lyrics by Glen Slater with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Tuacahn’s production, directed by Larry Raben, is a fun night of family-friendly entertainment. At the end, the sold-out audience leapt to its feet. In addition to the quality of Tuachan’s production, maybe Dewey Finn’s rock dreams speak to all of us, more than we’d admit.