School Of Rock The Musical

Spot On Productions     The Point, Eastleigh  Mark Ponsford  17 May  2023

Based on the 2003 film of the same name, this raucous and joyous stage musical premiered in New York in 2015, and with the Broadway production continuing its hugely successful run, was given its London presentation in 2016, eventually closing after a run of just over 3 years. With adults and children taking the show to their hearts, School Of Rock captivated its audiences from the outset, thanks to its wildly entertaining plot, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s high-spirited (and ingeniously pitched) score, and a line-up of young people whose collective rise to the demands made on them due to the nature of the show became one of its most lauded aspects.  With lyrics by Glenn Slater, and a book by Julian Fellowes (still, to my mind, a somewhat incongruous choice for this type of show), it’s a recipe for full-on delight, and Spot-On Productions are delivering the goods triumphantly this week onstage at The Point.

Without giving away any overt spoilers, this is the story of Dewey Finn, loose cannon and walking disaster area, who finds himself unceremoniously “let go” from his Rock Band at the start of the show, following a ludicrously funny song that’s enough to give narcissism a bad name. Suddenly left with no immediate prospects, an opportunity presents itself – though not specifically for him, although this doesn’t stop him from seizing his opportunity, and embarking on an adventure he can only hope to get away with for so long. This exasperating (to most of the adults he encounters) yet completely adorable (to everyone else, including us) character is brought to life this week by a stalwart of several local Theatre companies, Jim Smith, and I’ll have plenty to say about him in a paragraph or two’s time!

Spot-On’s full-scale, full-on production, played out on an ingeniously adaptable set, and effectively lit throughout, is raising the roof at the Point, to much the same degree as did  their joyful production of Kinky Boots last Autumn. Never a show to be undertaken lightly, Director Alick Leech has assembled and marshalled a first-rate company of players, surely among the most multi-skilled and talented ever to grace this particular stage, and the work they are sharing with us this week is, in the best sense of the term, pretty jaw-dropping. (The casting process alone must have been extensive, but oh my, it’s been worth it.) The production has two teams of children alternating throughout the week, “Red” and “Blue”, and at Wednesday evening’s performance it was the turn of the Blue team to “do the honours”. These young people are nigh-on beyond praise for their musicianship, dancing, and acting – just look at any one of them at any given moment, and their characterisations and focus are absolute. My companions and I were – and are – astounded not least by the range and maturity of talents in some so young. Collectively, they’re a force of irresistible appeal throughout, not least when pounding their way through Abbie Jennings’ high-energy choreography, as impressive and finely drilled as we have come to expect from this company. (Oh, and they nail their laughs like veterans!) Music is again under the assured and dynamic direction of Martin Bennetts, marshalling a fantastic 7-piece pit band, who co-ordinate seamlessly with the live music played from the stage. But high-energy is not the only level on display here: there’s emotion and feeling too, and anyone who hears these young people singing the heartfelt ‘If Only You Would Listen’ (not to mention its even more emotional reprise) without a lump in the throat or a tear in the eye is made of sterner stuff than I am.

It is to the credit of the casting and range of talents on display that the strength of the adult cast ensures the overall balance and gravitas so vital to the show, and there’s a stage full of delicious characterisations to relish, not least among which come courtesy of Liam Baker, whose wickedly subtle performance of that aforementioned opening number gets the show off to a fantastic start. Then there’s Josh McDonald’s utterly hilarious Ned Schneebly, all panic and palpitations, forever treading carefully around his strong-bordering-on-terrifying girlfriend Patti, played gloriously to the hilt by Emma Manning. As Principal of the Horace Green School, Hayley Joy brings a perfectly pitched characterisation and a fine, expressive singing voice. And then….

….there’s Jim Smith’s central performance as Dewey Finn, a role demanding a very particular set of skills, and if ever a role and an actor were made for each other, the evidence is there for all to see on the stage of the Point this week. A fine and versatile performer in everything I’ve seen him do, he sings and dances up a storm, has a sense of comic timing and delivery that’s a little masterclass in itself, and even by the time we reach the finale, is still powering out energy like it’s going out of fashion. Crucially, his rapport with his young stage colleagues is absolute – he and they are clearly having a whale of a time together, and to see Theatre and Reality fuse so happily makes for something truly unforgettable. But there’s even more to him than that, and some of his most memorable and affecting moments are his quiet ones. If you’ve seen this production, you’ll know what I mean. If you’re booked in to see it, you’re in for a treat. Early on in the show, he sings’ When I Get To The Top Of Mount Rock’. By the end of the show – in fact, long before the end of the show – he’s already made it there in everyone’s eyes, and he’s the priceless centerpiece of a wham-bang joyous evening. Principal Mullins, in one scene, voices her wish that the parents leave “with smiles on their faces”. Regarding the audience leaving the theatre this evening, it was smiles all round. A real tonic of a show.