Gimme a “J-U-V-E-N-I-L-E!”
What’s that spell? “Bring It On: The Musical!”
If you’re looking for a perfectly sweet, numbingly safe Broadway musical for your perkiest young niece or gayest little nephew, it’s Bring It On. The tale of chipper cheerleaders follows Wicked and Legally Blonde as the latest big-budget, bubble gum musical aimed squarely at squeaky-voiced fangurls.
In the National Varsity Championships of Broadway, however, it comes in third.
The plot departs considerably from the 2000 teen movie of the same name—which is admirable, considering that scene-by-scene film re-creations have been the norm of late. In the stage version TK and TK, WASPy head cheerleader Campbell (Taylor Louderman) finds herself redistricted, forced to leave tony Truman High School for “urban” Jackson High. She’s slow to warm to her new environs but when Campbell learns of her former teammates’ Machiavellian machinations, she joins with the sassy flygirls of Jackson to beat them at Nationals.
As perky Campbell, Louderman is likable, despite her lollipop-sweet role. Adrienne Warren plays Danielle, the leader of Jackson’s urban dance squad, and possesses a magnetic stage presence and a killer set of pipes. But, seriously, she’s too poised and glamorous to believably play a hardscrabble teen working at a burger joint to survive. Her Danielle would be more at home with Campbell’s old snobby friends, getting mani-pedis.
A standout is Elle McLemore who plays Eva, a manic young Truman cheerleader with sinister ambitions. She switches on a dime between sugary and diabolic.
The introduction of a trans girl character was worrisome in its potential campiness—especially with the name La Cienega—but, played by charming Gregory Haney, she gets her moment in the spotlight and is fully accepted by her inner-city classmates. (Only in musical comedy, folks!)
Director-Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler’s keeps the pace brisk. His elaborately choreographed cheerleading set pieces impress at first but eventually grow tiresome. (The sixth time a girl is twirled like a baton 20 feet in the air ain’t as awesome as the first.)
The musical uniquely and cleverly utilizes two songwriting teams: The “white” songs for Truman High have music by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, High Fidelity) and lyrics by Amanda Green (High Fidelity). But despite Kitt and Green’s credentials, their contributions, like “What I Was Born to Do” and “It’s All Happening,” sound like Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber tossed into a blender on high speed and distilled to their sugary essence.
The world of Jackson High, though, beats to the hip-hop/rap-infused music and lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda (In The Heights). After leaving perky Truman High, the tone abruptly shifts as Campbell is whisked into a dangerous Oz of metal detectors, angry teens and possible drug use during “Do Your Own Thing.” It’s the musical’s most thrilling moment. Miranda’s flava-ful rhythms and words lend the songs some theatrical street cred not remotely found in Kitt and Green’s paint-by-numbers soft-pop rock.
But even with the addition of some vibrant beats, the Jackson High kids come off as squeaky clean as Mouseketeers. Too concerned with alienating
tourist Middle American audiences, the show’s writers turned Bring it On into a warmed-over “commentary” on the phony perkiness of affluent white society and the soulful optimism and honesty of inner-city minorities.
Been there, done that.
Bring It On: The Musical plays the St. James Theatre through January 20, 2013