Ever since he starred in the first Spotlight Theatre production five years ago this month, Adam Sanders has been a consistent, shining presence at the landmark former Scottish Rite Cathedral at 1800 7th Ave., Moline.
From Quasimodo in “Hunchback of Notre Dame” (2018) to Orin the dentist in “Little Shop of Horrors” (2021) to Patrick in “SpongeBob SquarePants” this past June, Sanders is always a blazingly intense, passionate performer. In the new “School of Rock – The Musical,” the amazingly talented, tireless actor reaches his personal Everest and it’s a triumphant, overpowering sight to behold.
Sanders is perfectly cast as the manic, rebel yeller, Dewey Finn – immortalized on screen by the wild-eyed Jack Black in the 2003 movie of the same name.
In the 2015 musical (with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater and a book by Julian Fellowes), Finn is an immature, failed, wannabe rock star who decides to earn extra cash (needed to pay his rent) by posing as a substitute teacher at a prestigious prep school.
There he eventually turns a class of skeptical straight–A pupils into a guitar-shredding, bass-slapping, mind-blowing rock band. But can he get them to the Battle of the Bands without their parents and the school’s headmistress finding out?
The show fits neatly into the Spotlight’s strong, deeply-carved niche of family-friendly productions, showcasing the variety of inspiring talents from QC young performers.
“School of Rock” is a natural partnership with the QC Rock Academy, with direction by Spotlight co-owner Brent Tubbs and music direction by Laura Hammes, lead singer of the QC rock band Fair Warning and vocal coach with the Rock Academy.
QC Rock Academy director Greg Hipskind (who is a drum instructor and drummer for Wicked Liz & The Bellyswirls) is longtime friends with Brent Tubbs, who reached out about a year ago when they found out they were getting the rights to do the musical.
There are six impressive Rock Academy students in the show, four of whom comprise the on-stage student band (the six-member backstage band plays much of the show, including for the miming on-stage adult band “No Vacancy”).
The solid student drummer, Henrik Senne, 13, is one of Hipskind’s personal students and they have been working on the songs for at least four months.
Guitarist Malcolm Fraser is just 11 years old and Hipskind said he’s the perfect fit to play Zack Mooneyham — his fiery solo at the show’s close is jaw-dropping. The no-nonsense female bassist is 14-year-old Breleigh Moran, and she has done many other local theater shows. Keyboardist Enzo Passini is 12, and “he is an amazing player,” Hipskind said. Agreed.
Two of the Rock Academy vocal students, Elena Skadal and Amelia Kipp, are part of the enthusiastic background singers for the band. Elena, just 10, has great stage presence, and Charley Seneli (a tall Bettendorf 6th grader) is a clear standout in the story as the shy Tomika, who finds her beautiful voice in “Amazing Grace” early in Act II.
Throughout “School of Rock,” the unkempt Sanders as Dewey is often more childish than his Horace Green School charges. He lies to get the substitute teaching job, taking on the name of his roommate friend (nerdy Ned Schneebly, played by Aaron Baker), and on his first day, he tells the kids he has a hangover and they will have recess all day.
Of course, the drama of the story comes from the clash of opposites — the boorish, unruly Dewey bristling with Ned’s domineering, impatient girlfriend (Amelia Fischer), the conservative school (all students in uniforms) and its strict, traditional principal (Sara Tubbs), and questioning parents, who wonder why they’re spending $50,000 a year for their kids to just learn rock music.
Of course, not only do the rambunctious kids find out how to assert themselves and learn confidence and perseverance as we well as their new musical passion, Dewey grows up by learning how to teach and inspire others. And naturally, Sara Tubbs as the buttoned-up Rosalie learns to literally let her hair down (by the fun, fevered finale) and channel her inner rock goddess (namely, Stevie Nicks), and she does a killer “Queen of the Night” along the way.
Unfortunately, the Sunday performance I saw was occasionally marred by some technical difficulties (such as lack of spotlights and the body mic for Summer going out at top of the second act), and a badly amplified keyboard throughout.
“School of Rock” overall is tremendously entertaining and shows off great energy from the adults and kids alike. The show will conclude with performances at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6 and Saturday, Oct. 7, plus 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 8. Tickets are $20 ($25 for floor seating), available HERE.