Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Sometimes, Pretty Is Enough

Review:  Bring It On: The Musical

Adrienne Warren and the cast of Bring It On serve up major musical theatre realness.  And they're pretty good athletes, too.

Needless to say, Bring It On: The Musical is not high art.  Anyone with such lofty expectations for the show has a gross misunderstanding of the source material on which it is based.  What this stage adaptation of the film series of the same name does offer is plenty of fun and high-flying acrobatics, even if some questionable story and tonal choices keep it from becoming the great piece of fluff theatre it could be.

Set in the world of competitive cheerleading, Bring It On doesn’t precisely follow the plot of the original movie or any of its sequels, instead using the franchise’s general premise and themes as inspiration for an original story.  The show begins with perky blonde Campbell being elected captain of the Truman High School cheerleading squad, but her dreams of winning the National Cheering Trophy are dashed when some questionable school redistricting results in her forced transfer to the scary multi-ethnic Jackson High.  Not only is Campbell a fish out of water, but the closest thing to a cheerleading squad at Jackson is a dance crew led by sassy queen bee Danielle.  This is obviously the Worst Thing Ever, and poor Campbell must somehow find a way to convince Danielle to form a cheerleading squad so that they both can compete at Nationals and win that coveted trophy.

Obviously, this campy setup is meant to provide more jokes than drama, a fact the show knows but doesn’t fully embrace.  The biggest problem is that Bring It On doesn’t take the outrageousness far enough, opting to play a large portion of the show completely straight despite a steady stream of one-liners provided by book writer Jeff Whitty (a Tony-winner for his work on Avenue Q).  As a result, the predictable plot drags at the start, although the approach does lead to some surprisingly heartfelt scenes as the characters struggle with growing up.  The second act ballad “Enjoy the Trip” is an especially poignant and insightful commentary on the ultimate importance of high school drama, and a highlight of the show.

Like most musical comedies, the real interest lies in the production numbers, which are plentiful and generally well done.  The contemporary score, co-written by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), highlights the very distinctive styles of its two composers while still sounding like a cohesive whole.  The R&B stylings that characterize Miranda’s work are particularly prominent and enticing, and the Bring It On score ends up being one of the most fully realized blendings of showtunes and modern pop to ever grace a Broadway stage.  Mirroring this mix is the excellent choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler (who also directed), which makes hip hop dance wholly theatrical and is a refreshingly new addition to an art form that can be painfully slow to evolve.

And when the fresh-faced cast breaks into the cheer routines that form the centerpiece of Bring It On, prepare to be amazed.  The dizzying combination of backflips, tumbling, and aerial acrobatics will take even the most jaded theatre-goer’s breathe away, and these athletic feats are performed with a precision and sleekness any show would do well to emulate.  It is honestly a shame there aren’t more of them – setting the first act primarily in a cheerleader-less school makes the routines hard to sneak in – although the upside of this decision is that it makes the dueling routines of the musical’s climax even more exciting.

The vast majority of the cast is making their Broadway debuts, and what the performers lack in experience they make up for with enthusiasm and general charisma.  Taylor Louderman’s Campbell can be a little bland, but she is believable, earnest, and a generally likeable leading lady (Louderman also does an excellent job with the enormous amount of singing she’s been handed).  Adrienne Warren belts to the rafters as Danielle, and her well-executed transformation from antagonistic to grudgingly respectful to genuinely friendly is one of the more dramatic character arcs in the show.  The supporting players all manage to make a positive impression, although the sheer number of characters leaves a lot of the actors with precious little to do.

The real standout among the cast is Gregory Haney’s camp-tastic turn as a drag queen student called La Cienega.  One of the few actors with prior Broadway experience, Haney takes a character we know nothing about (only one line in the show even acknowledges that her attending school in drag might have made her life difficult) and makes her into the most compelling person on the stage.  Completely over the top and reveling in every minute of it, Haney represents the type of show Bring It On is *this close* to being: a high-camp delight that is simultaneously hilarious and oddly engaging.

As stated above, Bring It On isn’t high art.  It has some fairly glaring oversights, like a story that meanders for much of the first act until settling into the predictable but effective drama of a sporting competition.  Everything seems to be just a little too easy for Campbell, which makes it difficult to fully invest in the plot or her hardships.  And for a show that traffics in cheerleader stereotypes, there is a surprising lack of unrepentantly bitchy girls to serve as effective antagonists.  The absence of a truly memorable villain, someone the audience could love to hate, keeps Bring It On from entering the realm of top-tier escapist entertainment, and we the audience must settle for merely very good rather than great.  That said, there are certainly worse ways to spend a summer night than with this slickly polished musical confection, and I for one am glad this national tour decided to stop by and play in the big leagues.

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