FDR was a cheerleader….Madonna was a cheerleader…Michael Jordan,” sing the cast of “Bring It On,” a musical based on a movie about two competing high school cheerleading squads, adapted by some of the talent behind “Next To Normal,” “Avenue Q” and “In The
Heights.” The first surprise of “Bring It On The Musical,” which played a long national tour before now opening at the St. James Theater for 12 weeks, is that people as awesome as Tony winners Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tom Kitt were drawn to remake a largely forgettable film that spawned four direct-to-video sequels. Is Broadway really the obvious next step in this commercial franchise? Are people who rent “Bring It On: All or Nothing” (DVD # 2) from iTunes for $3.99 willing to shell out $120 to see a live version? Will regular Broadway theatergoers overcome their prejudice against cheerleading, and embrace the sport the way Franklin Roosevelt and Michael Jordan did? If not, will there be enough teenage girls to fill the gap?
Questions of audience aside, was it a mistake for these young theatrical talents, who I feel hold the future of Broadway in their hands, to collaborate on such a trifle? It would be un-cheerleader-like of me to say so. It is better to think of it as their summer vacation
And that’s the second surprise: “Bring It On The Musical,” though overly long and inevitably formulaic, works as a kind of summer entertainment, by building on the strengths of the original movie, and avoiding some of its flaws. The musical’s story departs in major ways from that of the film. Campbell (Taylor Louderman) has just been made captain of the cheerleading squad at lily-white Truman High School, when she learns that she’s been transferred to multi-ethnic Jackson High, as part of a redistricting plan. Jackson doesn’t even have a cheerleading squad, but they do have an informal dance crew, led by Danielle (Adrienne Warren.) When Campbell finds out that she was actually pushed out of her old school by evil ambitious sophomore (All About) Eva (Elle McLemore), Campbell is determined to enlist the Jackson crew, and turn it into a squad good enough to compete at the national cheerleading competition, and thus triumph over her old alma mater and the evil Eva. Threaded in-between this major storyline are several subplots, mostly romantic. The original 2000 “Bring It On” starred a pre-Spiderman Kirsten Dunst, who redefined “perky” as charming and even hip. There is no obviously analogous star in the musical version, but there are several dazzling satellites, most making their Broadway debuts.
The biggest stand-outs are Ryann Redmond as the misfit, large-size Bridget, and Nicolas Womack as the rapidly-rapping Twig, who is drawn to full-figured ladies. They are a comic couple to rival the pairing of Judy Kaye and Mike McGrath in Nice Work If You Can Get It (both of whom, you may recall, won Tonys this year) Also deserving mention are Gregory Haney as the transgender La Cienaga and Ariana DeBose as Nautica. The movie introduced into the teen comedy formula something approaching a glimpse into the hefty issues of race and class, by making one of the schools all-white, suburban and rich, while the other multi-racial, urban and economically struggling. The musical heightens this both in the plot, and especially in the score. The almost two dozen songs are a tuneful mix of hip-hop and pop and R&B. The lyrics about famous cheerleaders is in the song “It’s All Happening” which is the kind of witty and thrilling rap that made Miranda “In The Heights” so enjoyable. Finally, “Bring It On” was not just a high school comedy, but also a sports drama. A strength of the film was its demonstration that cheerleading is indeed a sport, witness the high-flying gymnastics of the national cheerleading competition, an event that ESPN televises each year. Among the huge cast of the musical are about a dozen award-winning competitive cheerleaders, who are flipped impossibly high into the air, stand atop scary human pyramids, and execute spectacular moves with names known only to the secret society of 15-year-old girls. Director and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler wisely mixes up the acrobatics with more traditional chorus-line shuffling and hip-hop snaking that he used to such great effect in “In The Heights.” They don’t quite reach the same heights here, even as the cheerleaders cheerfully leap as high as Mary Poppins, without a harness.
Bring It On: The Musical At the St. James Theater, 246 West 44th Street, Book by Jeff Whitty; music by Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda; lyrics by Amanda Green and Mr. Miranda; inspired by the motion picture “Bring It On,” written by Jessica Bendinger Directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler; music supervision and dance arrangements by Alex Lacamoire; sets by David Korins; costumes by Andrea Lauer; lighting by Jason Lyons; sound by Brian Ronan; video by Jeff Sugg; hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe Cast: Taylor Louderman (Campbell), Adrienne Warren (Danielle), Jason Gotay (Randall), Elle McLemore (Eva), Ryann Redmond (Bridget), Ariana DeBose (Nautica), Gregory Haney (La Cienega), Neil Haskell (Steven), Dominique Johnson (Cameron), Janet Krupin (Kylar), Kate Rockwell (Skylar) and Nicolas Womack (Twig). Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including one intermission
“Bring It On The Musical” is scheduled to run at the St. James Theater through Sunday, October 7, 2012.