Sunderland Empire gives lesson of theatrical excellence from the School of Rock
Written by Robert Wilson Baker on 7th October 2021
It is not every day you get a movie classic mixed with an original Andrew Lloyd Webber but School of Rock was the perfect choice to mark the official Gala reopening of the Sunderland Empire, 19 months after the theatre closed due to the onset of the global pandemic. Theatre Director of Sunderland Empire, Marie Nixon, made an emotional pre-show speech that made us proud to be custodians and patrons of such a glorious theatre.
Major credit must be given to Nixon and the incredible staff, for not only providing great hospitality to meet the post-pandemic requirements but also going above and beyond when a turn of events meant the performance was evacuated and abandoned moments before the end of the show, putting the safety of the patrons at the heart of the experience.
Despite not seeing the full show, it didn’t stop us from making this initial judgement: School of Rock is the hottest theatre show touring the UK right now.
Based on the classic 2003 feature film starring Jack Black, the show follows Dewey Finn (Jake Sharp), a failed, wannabe rock star who decides to earn a few extra bucks by posing as his substitute teacher flatmate, Ned Schneebly (Matthew Rowland), at the prestigious prep school, Horrace Green Elementary.
In order to fulfil his dream of playing at the Battle of The Bands contest, he turns a class of straight-A students into a guitar-shredding, bass-slapping, mind-blowing rock band to compete against his old band, No Vacancy. During the show, Dewey allows all the characters to question the way they want to live their lives, both in and out of the classroom, especially helping uptight school Principal Rosalie Mullins (Rebecca Lock), rediscover her true wild child self.
School of Rock is a beautifully crafted show by director Laurence Connor and his associate Christopher Key, taking us on an emotional spectacle of a journey through amazing sets designs by Anna Louizos, arena standard lighting by Natasha Katz, inventive choreography by Joann. M Hunter, and a cleverly adapted script by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellows, that brings the heart of the story front and centre. But there are two main areas where this show stands out from others, the score and the cast.
The musical marked a major return for Andrew Lloyd Webber when the show first premiered on Broadway in 2015. Teaming up with lyricist Glenn Slater, the new music encapsulates the energy of the story and places the songs in the best places possible, expanding the emotional aspects with perfection. The big coup is the inclusion of songs from the film, including the main song ‘Teachers Pet’, which luckily finished just before the show was abandoned that evening.
The casting of this show is truly inspiring. Jake Sharp gives a star-turn performance of a lifetime as ‘Dewey Finn’, with insane vocal talents and infectious energy in his stride. Sharp doesn’t just emulate the quirks of Jack Black or original musical actor Alex Brightman but raises them ten-fold and created a unique, three-dimensional performance that radiates empathetic values that make us love this character. With a physically demanding part like this, it’s worth noting that Sharp shares this role with alternate Dewey Alex Tomkins, who will no doubt play the part with equal flare across the tour at certain performances.
Elsewhere, Rebecca Lock is a breath of fresh air as Rosalie Mullins. Lock has created a multi-layered performance that stays true to film with an added hint of theatrical magic in a gut-wrenchingly emotive version of ‘Where Did The Rock Go’. Matthew Rowland’s quirky and brilliantly exuberant ‘Ned’ mixed with Nadia Violet Johnson’s vicious and cleverly manipulative Patty, the pair give the perfect catalyst for that love-hate relationship.
Additionally, the adult ensemble multi-role effortlessly to create a true ensemble ethos; playing teachers, parents and rock affiliated folk to aid the story. Particular highlights include Chris Breistein’s rock god vocals performance as Theo alongside Richard Morse and Helena Pipe’s comic hilarity as Jeff and Ms Sheinkopf respectively.
The true stars of the show without a doubt are the young actors who play the class of ‘Horrace Green Elementary’. Made of 4 teams of 12 children, these young performers make the show with their spell-bounding instrumental skills and ability to hold character for a concentrated period. Their talent and professionalism, especially in regards to the show’s sudden end, is far beyond their years and they are a real credit to themselves and this production.
If musicals had a recipe for how to make the very best, School of Rock is the perfect musical. This show has things for all ages from comedy, romance and great music to stellar performances. If you get a chance to see this show, do it with no hesitation. I know I will be moving heaven and earth to see not only the last seven minutes but the whole show again and again.