Bring It On

Not a champion but an enjoyable teen confection that literally hits its share of heights.

While the standard path for a major stage musical is to bow in a regional tryout, move to Broadway then embark on a national tour, the producers of Bring It On: The Musical were smart to shuffle the established order. The streets are littered every season with early-closing notices for shows unable to withstand Broadway's tough economics. But this peppy teen cheerleader face-off has been built to travel, premiering last year in Atlanta before launching a tour in November in Los Angeles.

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. And the sheer athleticism of the event numbers -- with whirling cheerleaders catapulted into the air and 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 2000 Kirsten Dunst movie and shares a similarly driven central character, her blond ambition channeled exclusively into the pursuit of cheerleading excellence. But it actually has more in common plotwise with the 2006 sequel Bring It On: All or Nothing, which hinged on a redistricting rule that uprooted the privileged white girl and put her at an inner-city school.

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. Appealing if not instantly memorable, songs by musical collaborators range from traditional Broadway to pop and R&B, from melodic hip-hop to motormouthed rap.

The show gets off to a lethargic 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 (the delicious 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 white-bread comfort zone to the urban Jackson High.

The 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 having some junk in the trunk is an asset. 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 against Truman High. It's a credit to Whitty and his musical collaborators that they resist the obvious formulaic conclusion and turn this into a message musical, pushing the importance of solidarity, integrity and self-esteem over competition and conformity.

As a protagonist, Campbell could have used a little more spunk. But Louderman is a disarming presence with a sweet singing voice, and her eventual accountability for missteps pushes the right sentimental buttons for teen entertainment. The composing team deserves credit for songs that serve the plot rather than simply mark time. At two hours, 20 minutes, Bring It On is overlong and sometimes lacks flow. (Tweaks were still being made when it was reviewed.) But director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler packages the material into an affectionate salute to the joys and pains of high school and amps up the electricity where it matters most -- the dance numbers.

When the acrobatic ensemble of dancers and athletes flips and flies through the air, 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 (Through Oct. 7)
Director-choreographer: Andy Blankenbuehler