Sunday, December 20, 2015

New Rock Shows—Broadway's 'School of Rock,' Off-Broadway's 'These Paper Bullets!'

School of Rock
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber; lyrics by Glenn Slater; book by Julien Fellowes
Directed by Laurence Connor
Opened December 6, 2015
Winter Garden Theatre, 50th Street and Broadway, New York, NY

These Paper Bullets!
Songs by Billie Joe Armstrong; written by Rolin Jones
Directed by Jackson Gay
Closes January 10, 2016
Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street, New York, NY

Alex Brightman and Brandon Neiderauer trade guitar licks in School of Rock (photo: Matthew Murphy)
Like the amusing if innocuous Jack Black movie on which it's based, Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical School of Rock is a low-brow but rousing crowd-pleaser of the type not usually associated with the Cats and Evita composer. The 2003 movie had a typically eccentric and lively Black as a failed musician who nabs a substitute teacher job intended for  his married roommate, teaching what he assumes are stuck-up young brats the virtues of rock (don't ask how he gets the job and keeps it for so long without anyone noticing). The classroom full of precocious and talented kids helped make Black's usual shenanigans less annoying.

The musical mostly follows that blueprint, and why not? Unlike the movie, our hero Dewey (an inspired Alex Brightman, who resembles Black without slavishly imitating him) now has straight-laced principal Rosalie (the impeccable Sierra Boggess, who has quietly become one of our best musical actresses, killing it whether belting out the show's big ballad, "Where Did the Rock Go," or attacking the terrifyingly stratospheric notes of Mozart's Queen of the Night aria) as a love interest, whereas in the movie she was more his comic antagonist. The show also fleshes out the kids' equally difficult relationships with their uncomprehending parents.

Brightman and Boggess are brightly appealing together and apart, Webber's songs and Glenn Slater's lyrics are not particularly original but loudly get the job done—even if the big number, "Stick It to the Man," sounds like an outtake from another schoolkids' musical, Matilda—and Laurence Connor's slickly busy staging gives the whole thing a credibly ramshackle quality. 

But it's all nothing without the tremendously talented and professional kids, especially those in the band like standouts Brandon Neiderauer, who plays guitar like a young Hendrix, and Evie Dolan, who plays bass like a young McCartney. Whenever the kids trade zingers with Dewey or talk back to their parents or sing along and joyously jump around in JoAnn M. Hunter's delightful choreography, School of Rock resembles a real musical of rock.

The Quartos in These Paper Bullets! (photo: Ahron R. Foster)
Since Shakespeare and the Beatles are Britain's greatest cultural exports, why not mash them together and see what happens? That's the lame idea behind These Paper Bullets!, a paper-thin parody of Much Ado About Nothing set in London's swinging '60s as a band called the Quartos makes it big.

Rolin Jones' rollicking but juvenile adaptation of the Bard turns the leads Beatrice and Benedick into Bea—a sweet but sardonic London designer—and Ben—the Quartos' frontman—whose verbal jousting (some lines are adapted or wholly lifted from the original play, sacrilegiously) belies the fact that they're bound to end up together. But Jones hedges his bets by enlarging silly subplots of Scotland Yard investigators infiltrating the band's inner sanctum (Dogberry, etc., in the play) and the bumpy relationship between the Quartos' co-leader Claude and girlfriend Higgy (Claudio and Hero in the play), to the detriment of the entire dreary show.

Even Shakespeare occasionally had trouble making it all cohere, so a far lesser writer like Jones can't hope to cope with such fractious changes of style and tone, and hence his overlong (more than 2-1/2 hours!) attempt at farce falls flat on its face again and again, reduced to snarky asides, audience participation and desperate Fab Four in-jokes (villain Don John becomes Don Best, a nod to pre-Ringo drummer Pete Best). Billie Joe Armstrong's tunes—much like his power-pop efforts on Green Day's recent albums—are energetic in the early Beatles mold but lack the smarts, savvy, staying power and (most of all) originality.

Justin Kirk and Nicole Parker might have made a droll couple as Ben and Bea with more pointedly funny material; at least Kirk and his band mates—James Barry (Pedro), Lucas Papaelias (Balth) and the best of the bunch, Bryan Fenkart (Claude)—play the faux-Beatles songs with infectious enthusiasm. In fact, everyone onstage in Jackson Gay's colorful but repetitive staging (on Michael Yeargan's clever turntable set) is equally animated, but little of that good cheer infects the audience. These Paper Bullets! ends up shooting blanks. 

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