BWW Reviews: High Flying BRING IT ON: THE MUSICAL Delights at Strathmore
The Music Center at Strathmore, one of the DC Metro Area's venerable concert halls, usually plays host to various symphonic offerings, world music stars, and maybe a solo musical theatre/cabaret artist or two like Patti LuPone or Michael Feinstein. Rarely, however, does one see a national tour of a musical - let alone a contemporary one geared toward the younger set - make a stop at the venue. That changed this weekend when the current national touring company of Bring It On: The Musical played two performances at Strathmore and delighted the crowd with a high flying cheerleading moves, and youthful exuberance to spare.
I admit - musical theatre geek that I am - that I was curious as to how it would all work. Yet, any deliberations I had in my own head about how they would deal with the theatrical lighting requirements masking the chorister seats, and moving set pieces on and offstage, quickly were abandoned the moment our peppy yet earnest cheerleading heroine Campbell (Nadia Vynnytsky) appeared on stage and delivered "What I Was Born to Do" and commanded my attention. The thoughts faded even more as I became further immersed in not only her and others' high flying cheerleading and dance moves (naturally), but the impressive combination of a strong book and score. Elements, I might add, that were well executed by a young but certainly enthusiastic cast.
But let's back up here. Bring it On: The Musical, it should come as no surprise, is inspired by the popular movies that focus on the trials and tribulations (such as they are) of participating in school cheerleading. Yet, with a libretto by Jeff Whitty, music by Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and lyrics by Amanda Green and Lin-Manuel Miranda, we are not offered a simple screen-to-stage adaptation. It could be said that the story is an entirely "new" one, but very much in line with the kind of inspiring tales of perseverance that are found in the films. If any group of creative types is up to the challenge of writing a musical that's current and relevant, witty yet accessible, and inspiring yet not particularly schmaltzy, it's this group. At the very least, all of have been nominated for Tony Awards, and three have won. Jeff Whitty won for Avenue Q's book, Tom Kitt won for best score/orchestrations for Next to Normal, and Lin-Manuel Miranda won for best score for In the Heights. Amanda Green also received Tony nominations not only for Bring it On: The Musical, but the far too short-lived Hands on a Hardbody in the same 2012-2013 season. Collectively, they deliver a production that even if it's not completely original or surprising, is very much a winning one.
Campbell's dreams, we learn, are about to come true - or so she thinks. When stuck-up and self-absorbed cheerleader Skylar (Bailey Purvis) announces Campbell, now a senior, was voted captain of the Truman High School cheerleading squad, Campbell's only concerns relate to doing the best job she can in getting the team ready to win a national title. She takes a chance on a sophomore, Eva (Emily Mitchell), and invites her to join the squad, which already includes Skylar, Skylar's sidekick "Kylar" (Mia Weinberger), a couple of cute boys, several other strong cheerleaders, and a slightly awkward but spirited girl in a mascot costume (Maisie Salinger as Bridget).
That's where the mistakes begin. Shortly after, Campbell - following a change in the school's district lines - is sent to another school, and Skylar and Kylar also mysteriously fall victim to various other maladies. While Eva becomes squad captain by default - and takes Campbell's boyfriend, Steven (Andy White), in the process - Campbell is forced to tread the new waters of the much more urban Jackson High School and find out where she belongs in a place without a cheerleading squad. Though rough going at first, she convinces the all-powerful hip-hop dance team, led by Danielle (Zuri Washington), to let her join. The scheming Campbell eventually convinces Danielle and her friends to make the dance team into a squad that's able to compete in cheerleading competitions. Throughout the process, all learn the value of friendship, perseverance, integrity, and loyalty and realize that winning the cheerleading trophy is not the be-all-and-end-all in life.
As a group, the principal and ensemble cast members wholly succeed in bringing the kind of eagerness required to put over a musical about cheerleaders. They revel in the moments of campiness and find heart in the more earnest moments. It's a quite delightful balance. Featuring several triple threats, the cast can largely sing well, dance and do acrobatic moves with the best of them, and realistically portray high school students.
At the forefront of the group who can do all things equally well is Nadia Vynnytsky. You won't find none of that annoying nasally, thin-sounding belting from Ms. Vynnytsky. Her voice is full, rich, and well trained, and perfectly suited to the largely pop-based score with a bit of rap thrown in for good measure. She's also a strong actor - adept with humor and the more honest moments - and mover (even in a - believe it or not - leprechaun suit). Bailey Purvis also shines in all three areas and made me wish for an even larger part for the Skylar character in this show. I look forward to watching both of their careers progress.
While the other cast members had moments of brilliance and difficulty singing wise at the performance I attended, they never once let energy wane and remained wholly committed to every moment. There was not a single moment of going through the motions in any of the many vocal numbers. Washington, in particular shines, in her many vocal features.
Other memorable individual contributions come from Salinger - a superb, adorable comedian that makes you want to root for Bridget to succeed - and Sharrod Williams as the cross-dressing La Cienega. He has the sass factor in spades. Mitchell proves she's a master at giving a campy over-the-top performance as the cheerleader you love to hate, Eva. Her take on "Killer Instinct" is a hoot. While the male members of the cast are mostly forgettable, it should be recognized they don't have a lot to do other than provide romantic fodder for the cheerleaders.
Strong production elements like Jeff Sugg's video design, Andy Blankenbuehler's athletic choreography, Jason Lyons' snazzy lighting design complement the action well. A five-piece band under the direction of Julian Reeve enthusiastically plays Alex Lacamoire and Tom Kitt's peppy orchestrations - albeit from another room since Strathmore lacks an orchestra pit. But, hey, at least the band was live, which is more than what you can say about some musical productions nowadays. While I did find the sound to be a little 'processed' overall - both in terms of the band and the vocalists - it doesn't compromise the enjoyment of a show like this like it would with a more intimate and chamber-like musical.
Under Blankenbuehler's direction, like the Broadway production, the national touring production is fun - pure and simple. You can't ask for much more than that.
Running Time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, including an intermission.
"Bring It On: The Musical" played the Music Center at Strathmore for two performances on March 29, 2014. For a list of upcoming tour dates for the ongoing national tour, consult its official website.
Pictured: Nadia Vynnytsky. Photo by Clint Tuccio.