Reviewing mindless fun can be dangerous terrain. In the first half of the last century magnificent wits like P.G. Wodehouse and George S. Kaufman wrote the books for mindlessly fun musical comedies showcasing scores by the likes of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and the Gershwins that invented a new sophistication in American music and lyrics. The plots may have been silly, but the mindless fun of 1920s and 30s (Of Thee I Sing, Anything Goes, The Boys From Syracuse for starters) was often literate and inventive.
But nowadays, it seems common for “mindless fun” to be used as an excuse for less-than-inspired writing mounted and designed with lots of professional polish and performed with talent and gusto. And when those mean ol’ New York theatre critics suggest that the material could stand to be a bit stronger, they’re chastised with the claim that their lack of enjoyment comes from an inability to just kick back and have fun. Or even worse, someone will say, “It’s just a musical, not Shakespeare.”
The artists who wrote the bit of mindless fun now playing at the St. James, Bring It On, have previously been responsible for three of the brightest musical theatre offerings Broadway has seen in this young century. Tom Kitt is the Pulitzer Prize and Tony winning composer of Next To Normal, an audacious musical about a family dealing with one member’s bipolar disorder. Lin-Manuel Miranda won a Tony for his music and lyrics for the Pulitzer finalist In The Heights, a musical that applied traditional Rodgers and Hammerstein techniques to a contemporary story set in a Latino community of Washington Heights, with a score utilizing the sounds of a beautiful mosaic of cultures. Jeff Whitty’s Tony-winning book for Avenue Q united a score full of novelty and satirical songs into a very human story told in the form of a television show that teaches twentysomethings the realities of post-college life in the style of Sesame Street. And while Amanda Green has no Tony or Pulitzer to her credit, her career as a lyricist has displayed a talent for the kind of breezy intelligence you’d expect from the offspring of Adolph Green.
The news that this quartet has collaborated on a new Broadway musical should be a huge deal. The further news that the score to their musical involving two very different high schools will be split by having Kitt and Green write for the predominantly white school and Miranda write for the predominantly black and Latino school should be credited as a bold and innovative move. And yet Bring It On, though not a bad show at all, is not a particularly interesting one. That said, it’s probably exactly the musical its creators intended it to be and will most likely be greatly enjoyed by the audience it’s intended to please.
The title comes from the 2000 film depicting the world of competitive high school cheerleading, but the story is new; though familiar and predictable. Perky Campbell (Taylor Louderman) achieves the first half of her dream of becoming cheer captain of white, upper middle class Truman High and leading her squad to victory at the nationals, but a sudden redistricting of her neighborhood has her transferred to urban Jackson High. Also redistricted is the chubby and gregarious Bridget (Ryann Redmond), who finds that the qualities that regulated her to outcast status at Truman make her popular with the cool kids at Jackson, but Campbell’s attempt to fit in by suggesting she help create a squad for the cheer-less Jacksonians is seen as a patronizing attempt by the skinny blonde white girl to help the underprivileged minorities. Instead of a cheer squad, Jackson has a hip-hop dance crew, led by the tough, but emotionally guarded Danielle (Adrienne Warren), the slang-spewing Nautica (Ariana DeBose) and the confident and sassy transsexual La Cienega (Gregory Haney). (In the upbeat world of Bring It On, La Cienega seems completely accepted by the entire student body and the worst abuse Campbell suffers is being called “Cream of Mushroom” and “Chicken Noodle.”)
Meanwhile, back at Truman, the popular diva Skylar’s (Kate Rockwell) role as new cheer captain is endangered by shy sophomore Eva (Elle McLemore), who turns out to be an Eve Harrington with lots of school spirit. (But she’s never referred to as an Eve Harrington in the script. This is not a Douglas Carter Beane musical.)
Eventually Campbell earns the trust of her Jackson schoolmates and they do form a squad to compete against Truman. I suppose I’m not giving too much away by revealing that the losing team loses because they stayed true to themselves and played by their own rules (instead of, um, the rules of the competition) so really, everybody wins.
Close to every member of the Bring It On cast is making his or her Broadway debut, which can be expected when the show demands the kind of specialized cheerleading skills required. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, making his Broadway debut as a director, keeps his cast flying and flipping through their numerous routines, which are fun to watch, but after initially introducing the styles of the competing schools, do little to keep the story moving. And perhaps the need for people who can execute the routines is the reason why much of the cast seems to be lacking in the acting and performing departments. Whitty’s book seems sufficiently funny but much of the company plays their broad-stroke characters without the details needed to bring out its comic potential. Nobody’s bad, but expect more raw talent and youthful enthusiasm than stage savvy.
Kitt’s pop rock melodies get overshadowed by the more interesting urban mix composed by Miranda, but Green’s lyrics – when they’re not overwhelmed by the hyper-active staging – contain some smart comic gems. (“My name is Skylar, I rep the Bucs with pride / I’m probably too cool for you, so friend request denied!”) A second act rouser that has Eva celebrating her killer instinct stands out as a refreshing blast of old school musical comedy. (“I’m the girl to beat, the high school queen! / Seniors kiss my ass and I’m just fifteen!”)
No doubt the amount of room needed for the twisting leaps and high kicks is the reason David Korins’ set consists primarily of easy-to-move projection screens, where video designer Jeff Sugg supplies some clever moments. If nothing else, this will be known as the first Broadway musical to have scenes take place as video-projected Skype conversations.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Adrienne Warren and Taylor Louderman; Bottom: Ariana DeBose, Ryann Redmond and Gregory Haney.
Posted on August 27, 2012 - by
About the Author: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Citi Field pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.