It’s Got to Be Carefully Brought

17. December, 2011 Theater No comments

Bring It On: The Musical may look like just the latest in a very, very long line of hit movies and cult classics that have been turned into stage musicals in recent years, but looks can be deceiving. This should be where I say that it’s so much more than that, but in fact it’s considerably less. It is, in fact, a total bait-and-switch.

Adrienne Warren and company in Bring It On. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Aside from its producers, Universal Pictures Stage Productions and Beacon Communications, Bring It On has nothing whatsoever to do with the 2000 cheerleading-competition comedy of the same name. If you’re expecting any favorite lines, songs, characters or scenarios from the surprisingly smart hit movie that spawned umpteen so-so sequels, forget it. It has cheerleaders in it, but the connection ends there. The musical does lift key plot points from a much older film (50 years older, in fact), so much so that it’s not even subtle, but telling you which movie it is would be a major spoiler if you’re considering seeing the show. That said, the musical’s villain is clearly named after her celluloid inspiration.

The stage show has an impressive dream team of talent working on it: The book is by Jeff Whitty of Avenue Q and Tales of the City, the music’s by Next to Normal’s Tom Kitt and In the Heights Lin-Manuel Miranda with lyrics by Miranda and High Fidelity’s Amanda Green, and it’s directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, also of In the Heights. Bring It On comes to the Orpheum Theatre as part of SHN’s Best of Broadway season, but the show has yet to hit Broadway. It’s on tour from L.A. to here to Denver, Houston and Fayetteville with an eye toward New York when it’s ready. From the look of things, that may be a long time.

The movie Bring It On is essentially a sports movie. It focuses on cheerleading as a competitive sport, split between internal cheerleading squad politics and the preparation for a major competition, complicated by the discovery that the previous squad captain stole all their cheerleading routines from a competing inner-city school. The stage musical scraps all that. There’s still a cheerleading competition in it, but in this one, perky blonde squad captain Campbell finds herself abruptly redistricted into an inner-city school with no cheerleaders at all, and she has to figure out how this happened when she thought she had her life all figured out, and how to adjust to not being the popular golden child anymore. Will she learn to adjust to having nonwhite classmates and form a cheer squad for a climactic comeback? Well, what do you think?

Oddly, there’s also no cheering in the show. Everyone’s too busy singing to do any of the chants that people think of when they think of cheerleading—although a rowdy group in the opening-night audience contributed a few just before the show. You get plenty of acrobatic dance routines courtesy of Blankenbuehler and all the real-life cheerleaders in the ensemble, and they’re terrific, although it’s a glaring mistake that we never see any of the competing routines, only the one by the team we’re rooting for, even when half the named characters are in one of the teams performing offstage. Talk about stacking the deck.

There’s no song list in the program because the creators are still retooling the show. That’s just as well, because there aren’t any memorable songs.  From time to time there’s some good rapping, particularly from Nicolas Womack as the minor character Twig, but even then the songs under the rhymes are lackluster. The best musical moments come when the sappiness of the songs turns into a joke, such as when the romantic interest croons about how hot our heroine is while she does a slo-mo dirty dance in a ludicrous sports-mascot leprechaun suit with a giant head. That’s easily one of the top three moments in the entire show.

Most of the main characters are bland and underdeveloped. Taylor Louderman is a likeable protagonist as Campbell, but she lacks any of the peppy zing of Kirsten Dunst’s Torrance in the movie. Adrienne Warren has a strong presence as Gabrielle, the “queen bee” of the new school and leader of its hip-hop dance crew, but after all the build-up of what a hardass she is, she turns out to be a total softie. Kate Rockwell’s Skylar gets some funny lines about being a megabitch, but she doesn’t get much chance to demonstrate her prowess in that regard. A running gag about fellow cheerleader Kylar (Janet Krupin) copying Skylar never quite becomes funny. We get no sense at all of who the love interest Randall is (Jason Gotay), except that he’s kind of sarcastic and makes mix tapes. He’s supposed to be vaguely reminiscent of Jesse Bradford’s Cliff in the movie, and relies on that association for any likeability or personality.

Fortunately, there are some great characters in the mix who make the entire show.  Chief among these is Bridget, the boundlessly enthusiastic but neurotic team mascot with low-self-esteem, played with considerable comic panache by Ryann Redmond. Gabrielle’s transgender sidekick La Cienega is also a huge crowd-pleaser, due to a hilariously sardonic performance by Gregory Haney. Elle McLemore builds beautifully to monstrous heights as the eager-beaver new recruit Eva, and Womack is way more charming than he has any right to be as the one-joke character Twig—the one joke being a pretty limp one, that he thinks chubby, schlubby Bridget is the hottest thing ever.

The story’s amusing enough, and the script has plenty of funny lines, although it too could stand to be punched up a bit. There are some halfhearted cheer puns and dumb-blonde misquotations, but nothing half as clever as the movie’s “this is not a democracy, it’s a cheerocracy.” (Kudos to screenwriter Jessica Bendinger, who has nothing to do with this production.) Although it’s not intended as a period piece, many of the show’s references such as Miss Cleo or Mrs. Garrett are far too old for the actors saying them, let alone the teenage characters they’re playing. At some point Gabrielle says that this isn’t one of those movies where the white girl comes to a black school and changes all their lives, and the line is all too telling because this is exactly that kind of story, and being aware of it doesn’t make it any less of a cliché.

What’s here so far is an entertaining evening, as long as you adjust your expectations going in, and the gravity-defying choreography keeps the energy high. But as a musical, especially one called Bring It On, it’s hardly ready for regionals, let alone nationals. The show just isn’t bringing it yet.

Bring It On: The Musical
Through January 7
Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #118 of 2011, attended December 14.

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