SANDY — Hale Centre Theatre’s production of School of Rock is the fifth play I’ve seen in the last two weeks, including a professional production of The Play that Goes Wrong. When the pre-show announcements for School of Rock stated the mission of Hale Centre Theatre was to enrich lives through world class theatre, I expected it to be leaps and bounds more impressive than anything else than had seen this month and on par with the best theatrical experiences of my life. Under the supervision of director David Paul Smith, it was.
This was my first show at any Hale production in Sandy. The building is impossible to miss on my daily commute up I-15, and walking into the space was impressive and regal. While that can be inferred from the outer façade, and perhaps the ticket price, it is a gorgeous facility that had the theatre maker in me deeply curious.
School of Rock is an adaptation (with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater, and a book by Julian Fellowes) of a film of the same name featuring Jack Black. The story centers on rock ‘n roll disciple Dewey Finn (played by James Densley), who begins the play by showing up members of his rock band, No Vacancy as they play “Too Hot For You.” As a lover of rock concerts, I found this introduction was underwhelming. I felt no bass rattling my ribcage, and the lights were rock themed, but not face melting. Densley, though, was hilarious to watch in this bit. While most of his garishly dressed band mates played it straight, he was not afraid to invade their space and set the tone for his character incredibly well. Indeed, Densley never lost that during the whole production. I was incredibly impressed with how he consistently channeled the traits that Jack Black brought to Dewey without feeling like a Jack Black rip-off. Densley was a hot sweaty mess who felt off the cuff and following the music in his soul. I loved moments when he would drum his fingers along audience railings or set pieces like he had music trying to escape his soul. He felt like a wanna-be rock star in the best possible way.
As the story progresses, Dewey finds himself strapped for cash and commits just the tiniest bit of fraud by impersonating his roommate, Ned Schneebly (played by Jordan Nicholes) as a substitute teacher at an elite private school. Dewey immediately finds himself in over his head with nothing to offer until he realizes that he has a room full of classically trained child musicians that, with a little anarchy, can be formed into a proper rock band. He channels their talent from bowing cellos and tickling ivory keys to shredding bass riffs and engrossing synthesized chords. He helps the students find their voice and unity by the hope of winning the battle of the bands and stickin’ it to the man.
The kids were far and away the highlight of the show. Emme Chaffin’s portrayal of the unconquerable Summer Hathaway was ideal. Her stage presence stood up to Finn and every other adult in the room as she seemed at home telling the adults on stage what to do and when. The drumming of Freddy (played by Noah Ward) would have been impossible to learn during a rehearsal process and indeed looked as though he had been behind a drum kit longer than he had been alive. Equally impressive were the jamming bass riffs from Katie (played by Gloria Wren Newton) and guitar solos from Lawrence (played by Kenny Matthews). All of the kids sang and danced well, even upstaging their adult ensemble counterparts. It almost added an extra layer of ironic humor to the kids screaming to Dewey about wanting to stick it to the man for being overscheduled.
The price of admission to School of Rock is worth it just to see the spectacle in the production. My jaw dropped as an entire bedroom was flown in from an open ceiling sixty feet up. I imagine that scenic designer Kacey Udy’s imagination goes wild when given the opportunity to design in this theater. Udy’s set took advantage of the incredible automation of the space, but also paid close attention to little details to make each space intricate and unique. Dewey’s room was filled with eye candy for music enthusiasts, as well as little details of personality that helped bring each space to life. I think the only scenic element that was not absolutely phenomenal was the raising of the floor that opens into a deep pit. It was slow, and at times I worried that actors or rolling set pieces were going to fall into the abyss during a scene transition.
The strong spectacle is also apparent in to the vivid costumes designed by Peggy Willis and the lighting, video, and projection designs from Jaron Kent Hermansen. Willis’s costumes told a story by themselves, and each character had costumes that were unique and well crafted. While the lighting in the show’s opening sequences felt tame for a rock musical, by the end, the lights brought the audience to the stage of a true rock concert. While I’m sure it helps to have access to the excellent tools Hale provides, it takes true craft to maximize those tools.
As Ned’s girlfriend, Patti Di Marcho, Mckenzie Belnap was show stealing. She had an impressive voice in her vocal solos that both rocked and had strong musical theatre technique. Her ability to act and sing on stage with the level of intensity she had was impressive. It gives strong credence to Nicholes’s character wanting to stay with her, despite Ned’s claim to being a satanic sex god. Nicholes’s grasp of his character’s awkwardness and discomfort in the situation was hilarious and added a great dynamic to each scene. Rachel Nicholes plays draconian principal Rosalie Mullins. Her fastidiousness and dynamic voice shined in a scene in the dive bar with Dewey, and the sorrow that the character feels is palpable and sympathetic. In her role as principal, however, I felt that Rosalie was not as intimidating as the script demanded she be. While the actors reacted to her as if she was, the sweetness that made the carefree Mullins sing karaoke in a dive bar also occasionally undercut her intensity in the prep school.
The adult ensemble was good, but fell short of the excellence of the leading actors, with the exception of Tara Kearl’s Mrs. Sheinkopf, who had the dominance I anticipated from Principal Mullins. Their strongest work was as the angry parents who felt very authentic. Their backup dancing in Ned’s living room, however, felt like adults rocking out at a 2018 Styx or Journey concert. They knew the steps, but lacked the groove.
While there are impressive components of the production — the venue, the spectacle, the performers, and the overall theatricality — this was the School of Rock! As Def Leppard so sagely asks, “Do you want to get rocked?” I most certainly did. The finale was truly impressive. The sound mixing, which had been underwhelming and even quiet at times, finally let loose and allowed it to truly feel like a rock concert. Lights blared. Bass resonated. Hair flipped. The audience was on its feet, clapping along, and feeling the communitas of a rock concert. The moment was real (even if I had to wonder if some of the audience roar was artificially enhanced) The show’s momentum builds through the show and culminates in laughter, heartwarming messages, and just enough rock vibe to merit the title School of Rock.