Musicals about music – what could be a more harmonious partnership? – are a tradition at the Spotlight Theatre. We had All Shook Up in February, 2022's The Producers, 2021's The Sound of Music, and 2020's The Wedding Singer. Moreover, the Spotlight has an impressive yet relaxed ambiance. Add talented, hardworking people, and any show there is almost naturally a winner.
This one, School of Rock: The Musical, was directed by the theatre's co-owner (and set, lighting, and sound designer) Brent Tubbs, aided here by musical director Laura Hammes and choreographer Becca Johnson. Onstage, we have 30 actor/singer/musicians, plus seven musicians in the pit, and they and the crew have staged an ambitious, complex production that runs smoothly, sounds great, and will leave you grinning.
School of Rock, which debuted on Broadway in 2015, is based on the 2003 film hit, which also inspired a Nickelodeon series. Its premise involves a would-be rocker, desperate for money, who lies his way into a job at a prep school and transforms the affluent students into a metal band. (No, really.)
Musical-theatre ultradaddy Andrew Lloyd Webber – who co-wrote Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph & the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Cats, and Evita, to name a few – provided the tunes. He also served in Parliament, is a freaking baron, and bought the stage rights to the movie, so this is literally his show. The book is by another veddy upper-class Brit Julian Fellowes, who's also a baron, a former actor, the creator of Downton Abbey, and is currently in the House of Lords. Glenn Slater, the sole Yank on the creative team, wrote the lyrics and, though not a baron, boasts an impressive résumé himself.
That's all well and good, but the performers make the show, and the ones in Tubbs' School of Rock are superb. The cast is filled with local-theatre favorites, veterans, and fresh faces, most of whom play multiple roles. Of special note are the student musicians and singers of our own local School of Rock: the QC Rock Academy.
But before I get to them, I'll talk about perpetual-motion dynamo Adam Sanders, who plays Dewey, the aspiring-rocker-turned-teacher. Sanders is limber and funny, with acting skills to beat the band (so to speak), a rockin' voice (with an Axl Rose/James Hetfield vocal style) – plus, he learned the guitar for this role. Sanders is perfectly cast as a slacker musician with big dreams, but he's got emotional range, and it's hard to think of a part he couldn't play. Another can-do-almost-anything performer, Spotlight co-owner Sara Tubbs portrays Rosalie, the school's headmistress. Tubbs has sterling credits and is wonderful as the repressed academic. It can't be easy to stay compelling as a reserved character while Sanders is ricocheting off the nearby walls, but Tubbs delivers.
Dewey's students include the prototypical Overachieving Kid (Taylor Tubbs' Summer), singers Tomika, Shonelle, and Marcy (Charley Seneli, Addisen Kuffler, and Tate Sommer, respectively), Billy (Brighton Greim), Mason (Jack Carslake), James (Antonio Casas), Sophie (Elena Skadal), Madison (Amelia Kipp), and the prodigious musicians: guitarist Zack (Malcolm Fraser), keyboardist Lawrence (Enzo Passini), bassist Katie (Breleigh Moran), and drummer Freddy (Henrick Senne).
The School of Rock movie was bursting with classic rock songs, but rights are no doubt too pricey for stage productions – that's where Lloyd Webber came in. The one original song from the movie, also in this musical, is "Math Is a Wonderful Thing," an intentionally feeble ditty. Lloyd Webber's songs aren't awful, just middling. The performers, however, improve them tremendously. I enjoyed the sprinkling of musical and lyrical quotes from rock tunes throughout, and the show features the original recording of one early-'80s hit. Sara Tubbs blew me away with an aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute. And I'm elated to report that at Thursday's final dress rehearsal, the sound system did not misbehave.
Costume designer Sara Wegener performs her customary witchery, providing multiple, varied outfits for the adult performers who alternately play the students' teachers and parents, while the kids wear crisp school uniforms, adding arena-rock accessories at the end. Thursday's preview, meanwhile, opened on the right glam-metal note with the garb of No Vacancy. The front man (played by Joel Vanderbush) boasted a blond Dee Snider mop, leopard-print headband, leather pants and vest, and heels. Topher Elliott, as the drummer, sported black lipstick and a glorious crown of multicolored floofy hair. The bassist (Avenue Meumann, with an energetic, wide stance) was in classic black leather. And I toss roses to whomever came up with the Steven-Tyler-style mic scarf.
Despite the fabled debauchery of rock, the most these characters do is throw a lot of heavy-metal horns (the hand sign). No sex or drugs – just rock and roll (and a little booze), and one song contains a rude colloquialism and the “S” word. Tweens and younger kids can relate to the students' problems, and the performers themselves are inspiring examples of what young people can accomplish with hard work.
In this uplifting musical, everyone is transformed for the better. The rock styles, from power ballad to stadium anthem, will evoke nostalgia or provide a history lesson, depending on your age. It's The Music Man meets Sister Act II meets Matilda: The Musical, and it's number one with a mullet.
School of Rock: The Musical runs at the Spotlight Theatre (1800 Seventh Avenue, Moline IL) through October 8, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)912-7647 and visiting TheSpotlightTheatreQC.com.