School of Rock (Winter Garden Theatre, Broadway)

Michael Coveney reviews the New York opening of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Julian Fellowes’ latest musical

Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical is a rock and roll, heavy metal tribute to, and very smart adaptation of, the 2003 movie starring Jack Black as a slobby stand-in teacher who guides his pupils to a Battle of the Bands play-off final.

One really good thing about the movie, and also this riotous, high-decibel raw punk rock, subversive school show version — it's like Matilda with attitude, more teachers and better songs — is that the infant rockers don't win; as teacher Dewey Flynn tells them, "We're here to rock, not to win."

But of course they come back for an encore anyway. In the theatre, this is far more appropriate, and indeed moving. And where on earth do they find these young ten-to-twelve year-olds who sing like Aretha Franklin and play drums and guitar like Buddy Rich and Eric Clapton? Come to that, where did they find Alex Brightman, who is simply sensational in the Jack Black role, exactly like Black, but also not, truly original with similar stubble and charisma?

Brightman — no relation of Sarah — has been on Broadway several times, but this is the breakthrough. And, if he plays this show for another year or so, probably his break-down; the energy level is phenomenal, his sandpaper voice apparently indestructible and his touch with the kids, impeccable.

Watch the trailer for School of Rock the Musical

The songs of the movie are mostly intact, even down to the Stevie Nicks track on the beer bar jukebox where Dewey's prim and bespectacled employer, the Horace Green school principal Rosalie — beautifully played and sung by Phantom veteran Sierra Boggess — melts under his pressure; Bogges then sings the enchanting, unbuttoning ballad, "Where Did the Rock Go?" a fine example of Lloyd Webber steely nostalgia, with lyrics by Glenn Slater, who scribed Sister Act and Love Never Dies, the Phantom sequel.

The score is more than a stitching together of the movie items. There are some splendid new anthems and chorales, a touching plea for the kids' dignity in the home with their parents ("If Only You Would Listen") and a second act opener, "Time to Play," that reasserts their creative awakening.

Much of the musical language, in fact, is reminiscent of Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down the Wind with vampire rocker Jim Steinman rather than his operatic masterpieces with Tim Rice, Superstar and Evita. Mike White's movie has been deftly adapted by the down-and-dirty denizen of Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes, efficiently directed by Laurence Connor (brilliant jumping-up-and-down choreography by JoAnn M Hunter), wittily designed by Anna Louizos and lit with rock concert flair by Natasha Katz.

There's a distant/recent period feel about the show that doesn't preempt good jokes about the Kardashians and company, and even better musical ones, quoting Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones, as well as a bravura turn from Boggess as Mozart's "Queen of the Night" in The Magic Flute and the astonishing little Bobbi MacKenzie as the girl who secures her place in the line-up with an a capello "Amazing Grace." In the end, the show's about the power of music to move, and change, people's lives. No better cause.

School of Rock – The Musical runs on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre, New York.