YORK Light Youth’s tenth anniversary show is the York premiere of The Next Generation Edition of School Of Rock, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater and a book by Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame.
This all-American celebration of music, friendship and the power of self-expression is described as “technically and musically challenging”. “Technically” because it features not one, but two bands, an adult one in the pit and a group of whippersnapper talents ready to knock rock into shape on stage.
“Musically” because Lloyd Webber’s rock songs do rock out, not to the level of screeching heavy metal pyrotechnics, but demanding muscular singing from Jonny Holbek’s lead character, substitute teacher Dewey Finn, especially in When I Climb To The Top Of Mt. Rock and Jack Black’s In The End Of Time.
“Any York production is always better for the presence of Jonny Holbek,” CharlesHutchPress opined when reviewing his scene-stealing Tobias Ragg in York Light Opera Company’s Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber Of Fleet Street in February.
That York Theatre Royal performance was marked by “humour and tragedy, light and darkness, hope and desperation, naivety and madness”. Move forward to School Of Rock, where Holbek brings buckets of humour and a dab of sadness, light and shade, hope and desperation, naivety and madcap mayhem to Dewey Finn.
A musician as well as an actor, here’s Jonny lapping up a well-deserved lead role, such fun to watch as he interacts brilliantly with the young company (aged ten to 17), the big kid among a bunch of them. Dewey is a ckeeky chappie role he was born to play, and he is indeed the Finnished article here.
Based on Mike White’s storyline for the 2003 film, Holbek’s Dewey is a failed wannabe rock star, who passes himself off as teacher flatmate Ned Schneebly (Flynn Coultous) to raise the rent by becoming the substitute teacher to a class of prep school students.
What can he teach them? Not history but the history of rock and how to play, so they can take on his old band No Vacancy in the Battle Of The Bands. They learn, he learns, and there is something of the vibe and spirit of both John Godber’s Teechers and Willy Russell’s Our Day Out in looking outside the box to stimulate children’s minds and actions.
Prominent among the adults in the story is Emma Louise Dickinson’s headteacher, Rosalie Mullins, repressed and orderly until Dewey brings out the Stevie Nicks butterfly from her dowdy chrysalis. She sings as beautifully as ever, best in show once more.
Multiple performers delight among the young company: whether Flynn Coultous revelling in the bossed-about adult role of Ned Schneebly; Georgia Foster as the insufferable Patty Di Marco; Olivia Swales’s precocious, bossy Summer Hathaway or Iris Wragg’s reserved Tomika Spencer-Williams, brought out of her shell by Dewey to reveal her singing talent. Look out for Isaac Patterson’s fashion-obsessed Billy Sandford too.
You will love the talented young musicians: Sam Brophy’s keyboard wizard Lawrence Turner, a Rick Wakeman in the making; Bella Smith’s too-cool-for-school bass player Katie Travis; Ollie Lee’s putative guitar god and Finley Walters’ all-action drummer Freddie Hamilton.
The first half is too long, with so many songs to fit in, but Sue Hawksworth’s direction elicits the best from individual and ensemble performances alike; musical director Martin Lay and his band power the songs to the max, and David Pumfrey’s set design ensures quick scene changes.
York Light Youth’s exuberant production really does Stick It To The Man, right down to an in-joke putdown at Lloyd Webber’s expense when Holkbek’s Dewey disses his lordship’s ballad Memory.
York Light Youth in School Of Rock, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, 2.30pm and 7.30pm today. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.