BWW Review: Circle Players' BRING IT ON THE MUSICAL Brings Down the House
Strong and energetic - some even show-stopping - performances from a youthful, fresh-faced cast, choreography that will have you dancing in the aisles and sprightly direction that moves the plot along at an astonishing pace...if you aren't already a fan of Bring It On the Musical, then Circle Players' production will make you one in short order.
Even if you've never seen the stage musical's inspiration - Bring It On, the 2000 film starring Kirsten Dunst, Eliza Dushku and Jesse Bradford, that's one of my favorites - it doesn't matter. That story's been scrapped and Jeff Whitty (who won the Tony Award for his book for Avenue Q) has crafted a new one that follows the efforts of a blandly white teenaged cheerleader named Campbell Davis who attempts to fit in at inner-city (read "urban") high school after she's forced by a quirky and questionable school board redistricting plan to leave her comfy and Caucasian academic home in a much-better neighborhood.
You may be asking yourself: That's the plot of a hit, Tony Award-nominated musical? The answer is a resounding "yes"! It may never be included in a list of the very best of musical theater, but Bring It On the Musical has a lot going for it beyond it's somewhat simplistic plot about "cheerocracy" and teenaged angst. The story is involving, the characters engaging and the music is terrific (which should be unexpected, after all, what with the starry pedigree of composers Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda and lyricists Amanda Green and Miranda - talk about a show being top-loaded). While it might not have won any Pulitzer Prizes, I can guarantee it can win over new fans, particularly if they are in the audience for Circle Players' 2017-18 season opener, helmed by Jason Lewis (whose most recent onstage project was the campy and vampy Reefer Madness for ACT 1).
Music directors Dennis Palmer and Randy Craft confidently lead their in-house band in providing the ideal musical accompaniment for the troupe of powerhouse singers. On opening night there were a few sound and projection glitches that were barely noticeable, but which prove once again that first show jitters can affect even the most well-appointed and designed elements of a production.
Lewis' eye for detail and his creative sensibilities ensure that Bring It On the Musical is eminently watchable and his on-target casting choices result in a virtual cavalcade of impressive performances from his cast, which is filled with newcomers to the Nashville stage cavorting with some veteran players who bring the show to life with a great deal of flair.
Lewis' direction is matched, step for step, by the tremendous choreography by Ashley Danielle and Tosha Pendergrast (aided and abetted beautifully by Haley Sue Pearson's "cheerography"), which skillfully blends traditional musical theater dance with hip-hop and cheer to make every musical moment achieve even greater success. While the performers might have a hard time winning a real cheerleading competition (like ESPN likes to feature from time to time), they nonetheless will make you believe they've won their own share of spirit sticks along the way.
Kailey Madison is terrific as the show's leading lady Campbell, portraying her with the right blend of bouncy enthusiasm and adolescent drama and commanding the stage in fine form, as would be expected of any cheer squad captain, but truth be told Campbell is probably one of the show's least-interesting characters. You might not notice that, were it not for the superb performances of the show's more intriguing personages that surround her throughout the show.
First off, there is Skylar and Kylar (played with equal parts charm, presence and ferocity by Emily Urbanski and MAggie Wood), the two snotty and snarky pals who battle Campbell for cheerleader hierarchy or Eva (obviously based on All About Eve's dastardly Eve Harrington), whose plotting and machinations are beautifully played out by Kayla Petrille.
Once Campbell is sent off to urban Jackson High, where the lockers are covered in graffiti and students must pass through security to gain entrance to the crowded hallways and classrooms, the more racially and ethnically diverse characters kick up the interesting quotient a notch or three. There's Danielle, the leader of the pack at Jackson, who is brought to life with sassy star power by Miracle Ham (she's destined for great things, so you need to catch her onstage before she's gone from the provinces to a bigger stage). Danielle's crew includes La Cienega, a trans student who may be the first such teen character on a musical stage - and, this is where the show's creators really score high, there is little attention given to the fact that La Cienega is trans; rather, she's refreshingly and deliberately just La Cienega! - portrayed with finesse by Toryn Brown. Sasha Siclait completes Jackson High's ruling triumvirate as Nautica, spouting malaprops of a decidedly 21st century nature and providing comic relief in the process.
But the show is very nearly stolen out from under all the cast members by Maddie Menendez as the slightly overweight and distressingly overlooked Bridget. Mendendez has excellent comic timing and delivers even her most groan-worthy dialogue with skillful glee and when she joins with Brown and Siclait to perform "It Ain't No Thing," they bring the show to a grinding halt with the ovation awarded them by the audience. It's but one of the musical highlights of the night, but damn, they're good!
The various men (and/or boys) in their lives are played with equal charm and ease by Carter Wright as Campbell's cheerleader boyfriend at Truman High who falls to the charms of both Eva and La Cienega along the path of the plot; scene-stealing Evan Acklin as Twig, the paramour of Bridget who helps to unlock her potential as a hottie; an adept Scotty Phillips, who squires Danielle around Jackson High; and, in a stunningly effective and star-making turn, Nathan Stultz plays Randall, the new guy in Campbell's life once she transfers. Stultz, who's been relegated to supporting roles on Nashville stages until now, delivers a terrific performance, proving himself a capable young leading man who can sing and dance with equal ability, but who rightfully surprises with a nuanced and utterly winning acting job.
The members of the Bring It On ensemble perform with the same enthusiasm and commitment as the show's principals and supporting players, and they are called upon to do a lot throughout the show and every last one of them deserves praise. So here you go, y'all...take a bow: Abby Hankins, AJ Harris, Alexis Marks, Angie Manning, Brady Cauthen, Brittanie Graham, Carly Clo, Ari McCracken, Daniel Carrasquillo (who comes close to stopping the show with his high-flying acrobatics and mad gymnastics skills), Danielle Rhodes, Haley Sue Pearson, Jason Scott, Michaela Ziparo, Nicole Turner, Sara Shumway, Shannon Brooks and Telease Haddock. Director Lewis even makes a brief appearance onstage as a student trapped in his goth persona, to grand effect.
Bring It On the Musical. Libretto by Jeff Whitty. Music by Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Lyrics by Amanda Green and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Arrangements and orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire and Tom Kitt. Directed by Jason Lewis. Music direction by Dennis Palmer and Randy Craft. Choreography by Ashley Danielle and Tosha Pendergrast. Presented by Circle Players, at the Z. Alexander Looby Theatre, Nashville. Through August 27. For tickets and other information, go to www.circleplayers.net or call (615) 332-7529. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).
About the show Circle Players kicks off its 2017-2018 season in high-flying style with the Nashville premiere of Bring It On The Musical, promising to take audiences to a colorful place filled with the complexities of high school friendship, jealousy, betrayal and forgiveness.
Featuring an original story by Tony Award winning artists Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q); music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights, Hamilton); music by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal); lyrics by Amanda Green (High Fidelity), and nominated for the Tony Award for Best Musical, Bring It On The Musical opens Friday night, August 11 at The Z. Alexander Looby Theatre.
Circle's production of Bring It On is directed by Jason Lewis, who was living in New York City when the show premiered on Broadway in 2012 and his interest in the show has only grown since its debut on the Main Stem.
"At first, I was skeptical of how this 90s cheerleading movie would translate to a staged musical," says Lewis. "Luckily, my friend Ariana DeBose (Hamilton, A Bronx Tale, Motown) originated the role of Nautica, so I had a personal reason to give the show a chance and see it."
"I still remember sitting in the front row completely stunned by one show-stopping number after another, the integration of hip-hop and rap into traditional musical theatre numbers and its high-flying stunts."
Bring It On The Musical tells the story of Campbell, cheer captain and most popular girl at the affluent Truman High School. Before she can lead her award-winning squad to another win at Nationals, school redistricting forces Campbell to transfer to the multi-ethnic Jackson High School. She befriends the dance crew girls and, along with their headstrong leader, Danielle, forms a powerhouse squad to compete at the National Championships.
The cast includes Kailey Madison (Campbell) and Miracle Ham (Danielle), supported by a variety of spunky cheerleading/student characters from both Truman High and Jackson High Schools. One of the more memorable is LaCienega, a transgender student who is part of the Jackson Crew.
"To my knowledge, it's the first Broadway musical to feature a transgender high school student where their gender identity is treated as a non-issue amongst their peers, an aspect that's very important to me," says Lewis. "Bring It On has a message of friendship, forgiveness, inclusiveness and embracing one's individuality that drew me to want to direct Circle Player's production."
Along with Lewis, the creative team includes music direction by Randy Craft and Dennis Palmer. The show has multiple dance and cheer choreographers under the leadership of Ashley Danielle and Tosha Pendergrast.
Performances run August 11-27, at Z. Alexander Looby Theater, 2301 Rosa L. Parks Boulevard. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m. for Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances, with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. (August 14, 21 and 27).
All tickets are $20 except for Thursdays, when tickets are $10 (service fee will be added at checkout). Assigned seating is available for all performances. Tickets may be purchased online via www.circleplayers.net. Reservations may be made by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or (615) 332-7529. Tickets are also on sale at the box office at Looby Theater one hour before each performance.