Encore Theatre's "School of Rock" rolls despite its difficulty


Encore Theatre's School of Rock

Horns high: Encore's School of Rock kids honor Ronnie James Dio's grandmother (whether they know it or not). Photo by Michele Anliker.

Taking a beloved hit movie and transforming it into a stage musical is standard practice these days. One look at current Broadway listings -- Aladdin, Anastasia, Frozen, the soon-to-open Mean Girls, and Waitress, to name a few -- proves how often the stage artists are borrowing from the screen.

But of course, not every translation works.

What made School of Rock -- the youth version of which is now being staged at Dexter’s Encore Theatre -- a bona fide hit (and a Tony Award nominee) instead of a B-side flop?

“With a character who is essentially just Jack Black teaching kids to defy expectations and rise above the world on a cloud of rock, it’s hard to go wrong,” said David Moan, music director of Encore’s production.

The show -- with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber (Phantom of the Opera, Cats), lyrics by Glenn Slater (Sister Act), and a book by Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) -- premiered on Broadway in December 2015, and its story hews closely to that of the original 2003 film. Out-of-work rocker Dewey desperately needs to pay his rent, so when a private school calls to offer his roommate a regular substitute teaching position, Dewey jumps into the job himself. Though he initially lets the students run wild, he soon learns that the kids have various musical talents, and this inspires Dewey to train them as a group that will compete in an upcoming Battle of the Bands. 

Because the show essentially requires young actors to specialize in instruments like guitar, drums, bass, etc., the demands of casting it can be tough.

“The discussion ahead of time was very much focused on the special nature of what we needed from each kid for this show,” said Moan. “The hope was that the doors would open, and we would find five kids who could play our specific instruments, sing musical theater and rock music, had good acting chops, dancing abilities, and an open enough schedule, but we tried to be realistic.”

Sounds like an extremely tall order, to say the least. But the audition process nonetheless yielded a core group -- Matt Rupp as Dewey Finn and lead vocals/guitar; Sophi Acevedo on lead guitar; Kilas Gallimore on bass; John Reed on keys; and Teddy Tolbert on drums -- with various levels of experience on their instruments. Meanwhile, the adult artists helming the show flipped some of the characters’ genders and names in order to make the show work optimally with the local young actors they found.

“We found performers with drive and determination to become these little rock stars, and seeing them jam out on their instruments in the midst of this great story brings down the house,” said Moan. “I honestly don't fully understand how they made it happen while being students, but man, am I thankful we found them. It is truly one of the coolest things to see all of these kids come together and rock.”

Though the original film featured iconic rock songs (Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” jumps to mind), the stage adaptation mixes the film’s few original tunes with an entirely new score. But not every tune in the show is a barn-burner.

“I will say that for musical theater aficionados, there are some very Andrew Lloyd Webber moments, and he has worked in some very traditional numbers as well,” said Moan. “He does it in a way that helps further the story and show the contrast between jaded adult and inspired child, but in so many ways, it wouldn't be an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical without them.”

Moan acknowledged that School is “not an easy show” since the kids had to learn how to sing and play at the same time; to work the rock score without vocally burning out; and to navigate technically challenging music.

“These kids have so much ability and enthusiasm,” Moan said. “All they need is a little help getting pointed in the right direction, and the tools to shape what is already there. … These kids are destroying this show -- obviously in a good way.”

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

The youth version of “School of Rock” plays at the Encore Theatre, 3126 Broad St., Dexter, March 9-18. For showtime and ticket information, visit theencoretheatre.org.