By Jeff Walsh
“Bring It On” hits all the notes you’d expect from a new musical inspired by the 2000 Kirsten Dunst cheerleading movie of the same name. There are catty cheerleaders, underdogs for the audience to cheer on, and high-flying aerial wizardry. But the members of its creative team have built their names by delivering theater that goes beyond our expectations, and that didn’t happen this time.
The story is pretty simple. A cheerleader is forced to change schools and goes from being head cheerleader of a winning squad to being anonymous in a more ethnic school that doesn’t even have or want a cheer squad. I never saw the original movie, but my friend who attended with me said it is not the same plot, so it is definitely more “inspired by” than “based on.”
To be fair, I really went because of the creative team, who have separately delivered some of theater’s recent highlights: Lin-Manuel Miranda (who co-wrote the music and lyrics) previously brought In The Heights, an uplifting musical about community and traditions to Broadway, for which he won a Tony. Tom Kitt (who co-wrote the music with Miranda) was one of the people behind the music of my favorite musical in recent years, Next To Normal, for which he won a Pulitzer and a Tony. Openly gay Jeff Whitty (who wrote the book) took on the ambitious project of telling Tales of the City as a musical in San Francisco, as well as writing the book for Avenue Q, for which he won a Tony. And it was directed by Andy Blankenbuehler, who also directed In The Heights, for which he won a Tony.
The high-flying cheer routines are impressive, especially when some of the cast are singing while being tossed around above the stage, and the show does have a lot of great moments, as you rarely a cheerleader singing gleefully about being a “castrating biotch” anywhere else in life (maybe I need to get out more?). But the story is so simple and predictable that it gives the ensemble players more of an opportunity to stand out. We can predict the fate of the cheer squad and the leads without any effort and some of the storylines, like the romance storyline between the lead cheerleader and her boyfriend, are almost threadbare. So, for me, the three standouts in the show were all in supporting roles.
Gregory Haney shines as La Cienega, the transgender member of the cheerleading squad. To its credit, the show just shows her being accepted and treated as a normal member of the team. The fact that the role is played by a man, and that he is either a drag queen or transgender, is made known, but no other back story is given (which the more political will possibly read into as omission, naturally). I did find a casting call online that calls La Cienega transgender, but no matter what, Haney makes the role his own and delivers a great performance.
Ryann Redmond takes what could be the stock “fat” role of Bridget and brings it to life, to the point where we root for her more than the team she is on. Delivering a bevy of amazing facial expressions, Redmond got some of the loudest cheers at the curtain call, and they were well-deserved.
Nicolas Womack plays the play-a with the eyes for his plus-size prize (Bridget), but he has one of the hardest jobs in the show: spitting out a machine-gun-paced Lin-Manuel Miranda freestyle like it’s second nature, in character, and effortlessly. I’ve seen other people get every word out (with a lot of effort) in Miranda’s previous show, but making it as natural and as tossed-off as Womack does is an achievement that he lands perfectly.
Another odd but unavoidable element of the show is that we follow a small group of cheerleaders, watch them rehearse and interact… and then, when they go to perform, there’s a dozen extra spotters, aerialists and other team members joining in. Again, not sure how to get around that, as the “extras” provide some of the big “ooh” and “ahh” factor of the impressive routines, but it was a necessary evil.
But, let’s face it. This is a high-energy cheerleading musical. The team we’re rooting for wins. The boys get the girls. The music is upbeat and entertaining. There are catty lines and attitude. And these aren’t spoilers to anyone with a brain. Bring It On delivers everything you’re expecting, just not more than that.
Bring It On is on a six month national tour with future stops in San Francisco, Denver, Houston, Fayetteville, Dallas, Des Moines, Chicago, St. Louis, Charlotte, Durham, Providence and Toronto. With most shows like this, the question of whether the cast will ever get to say “Gimme a B, Gimme an R, Gimme An O A D…” is still unknown.
For more information, check out http://www.bringitonmusical.com/