Bring It On: Theater Review
St. James Theatre, New York (runs through Dec. 30)
Taylor Louderman, Adrienne Warren, Jason Gotay, Elle McLemore, Ryann Redmond
The value of friendship over competition gets high-flying treatment in this touring cheerleader musical inspired by the 2000 Kirsten Dunst movie.
NEW YORK – While the standard path for a major stage musical is to bow in a regional tryout, move to Broadway and then on to a national tour, the producers of Bring It On: The Musical were smart to shuffle that established order. The streets are littered every season with the early closing notices of shows unable to withstand Broadway’s tough economics. But this peppy teen cheerleader faceoff has been built to travel, premiering last year in Atlanta before launching a tour in November in Los Angeles. On the road since then, it touches down for an initial 12-week summer stint on Broadway, where it should prove a crowdpleaser with the target demographic.
Is the show destined for a place in the musical-theater pantheon? Unlikely. But it scores points by reinventing rather than replicating the source material, sampling from a tasty selection of pop-cultural favorites. And the sheer athleticism of the event numbers – with whirling cheerleaders catapulted into the air and then caught in gasp-inducing basket tosses – provides enough genuine thrills to compensate for the stop-start storytelling. When the girls are airborne, the show soars.
The musical was inspired by the irresistible 2000 Kirsten Dunst movie, and it shares a similarly driven central character, her blonde ambition channeled exclusively into the pursuit of cheerleading excellence. But it actually has more in common plot-wise with the 2006 sequel, Bring It On: All Or Nothing, which hinged on a redistricting rule that uprooted the privileged white girl and planted her in a bad-ass inner-city high school, competing against her former squad mates.
The book by Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) adds a dash of Mean Girls and Clueless, of Friday Night Lights and Glee, and stirs in a conniving All About Eve subplot with a hint of Single White Female psychosis. The score is a team effort, with music by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), and lyrics by Amanda Green (High Fidelity) and Miranda. Appealing if not instantly memorable, the songs range from traditional Broadway to pop and R&B, from melodic hip-hop to motor-mouthed rap, the latter unmistakably coming from Miranda’s skilled hand. In “One Perfect Moment,” there’s also an I-wish number that adheres to the time-honored template of the classic Disney princess song.
The show gets off to a sluggish start, establishing Campbell (Taylor Louderman) as Truman High’s new cheerleading captain, determined to steer her squad to another win at Nationals. There’s some fun stuff with her fellow uber-blonde, Skylar (Kate Rockwell), a vain popular girl who revels in her power to be “a raging, castrating beyotch” – she scores many of Whitty’s wittiest lines. But the story only really acquires energy and edge when Campbell is transferred, along with zaftig Bridget (Ryann Redmond), out of her whitebread comfort zone to urban Jackson High.
This move reverses the traditional pecking order, giving Campbell an unaccustomed taste of outsider status. That makes her suddenly just like Bridget, who paradoxically fits right in at the new school, where some junk in the trunk is an asset with one of the boys, Twig (Nicolas Womack). While Jackson has no cheerleading squad, the school does have a dance crew, led by self-possessed beauty Danielle (Adrienne Warren) and her sidekicks Nautica (Ariana DeBose) and cross-dressing La Cienega (Gregory Haney), a muscle-bound hunk of fabulousness in a gym skirt.
It’s inevitable of course that Campbell will persuade the Jackson kids to switch from dance to cheerleading and propel them into competition with Truman High, where her old squad is now captained by faux-innocent Eva (Elle McLemore). Referencing killer-instinct role models from Genghis Khan to Bristol Palin, Eva has leapfrogged to the top, triumphantly declaring, “I am the one percent!”
It’s a credit to Whitty and his musical collaborators that they resist the obvious formulaic conclusion and instead turn this into a message musical, pushing the importance of solidarity, personal integrity and self-esteem over competition and conformity.
As a protagonist, Campbell could have used a little more spunk, and her romantic switch from her disloyal jock boyfriend Steven (Neil Haskell) to the more evolved Randall (Jason Gotay) is strictly business as usual. But Louderman is a disarming presence with a sweet singing voice, and she has terrific stage rapport with the lovely Warren, who gives Danielle attitude, intelligence and warmth. Campbell’s eventual accountability for her missteps and her lessons about the rules of friendship push all the right sentimental buttons for teen entertainment.
In addition to statuesque Rockwell’s delicious queen bee Skylar, there are winning comic turns from Redmond and Haney, in particular. Their be-yourself anthem, “It Ain’t No Thing,” sung by La Cienega, Nautica and Bridget, is the show’s best number. The songs of the mainly black and Hispanic Jackson kids invariably shine brightest, just as the story and characters are most interesting when they are centerstage. The composing team deserves credit across the board, however, for writing songs that serve the plot rather than just marking time as they do in so many movie-to-musical revamps.
David Korins’ set design – with rotating panels to accommodate Jeff Sugg’s projections – is cold and mechanical, suggesting the economies of a touring production more than anything visually evocative. Jason Lyons’ dynamic lighting is more vibrant. At two hours, 20 minutes, the show is overlong and sometimes lacks flow. (Tweaks were still being made when the production was reviewed.) But director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (a Tony winner for his hip-hop moves on In the Heights) packages the material into an affectionate salute to the joys and pains of high school and amps up the electricity where it matters most – in the dance numbers.
When the acrobatic ensemble of dancers and athletes flips and flies through the air, forming pyramids or serving as human stilts for their fellow cast members, their feats are as impressive as anything happening in Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark. And there’s not a harness in sight.
Venue: St. James Theatre, New York (runs through Dec. 30)
Cast: Taylor Louderman, Adrienne Warren, Jason Gotay, Elle McLemore, Ryann Redmond, Ariana DeBose, Gregory Haney, Neil Haskell, Dominique Johnson, Janet Krupin, Kate Rockwell, Nicolas Womack
Director-choreographer: Andy Blankenbuehler
Music: Tom Kitt, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Lyrics: Amanda Green, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book: Jeff Whitty, inspired by the movie written by Jessica Bendinger
Set designer: David Korins
Costume designer: Andrea Lauer
Lighting designer: Jason Lyons
Sound designer: Brian Ronan
Video designer: Jeff Sugg
Music director: Dave Pepin
Music supervision-dance arrangements: Alex Lacamoire
Presented by Universal Pictures Stage Productions/Glenn Ross, Beacon Communications/Armyan Bernstein & Charlie Lyons, Kristin Caskey & Mike Isaacson
Sundance: On the Scene