BWW Review: Pollard's BRING IT ON is Campy Fun at its Finest
Often, an audience member goes into a show with a certain set of expectations in mind. If you're seeing Shakespeare, you expect sonnets and iambic pentameter. If you're seeing Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, you expect searing drama and representations of real, recognizable people and their very human problems. If you are seeing Bring It On: the Musical, based on the cult-favorite movie of the same name, you expect camp, fun, nothing to be taken too seriously and some excellent dance and cheerleading. All of that and more is found in the infectiously enjoyable production of Bring It On now running at the Pollard Theatre in Guthrie.
Full disclosure, I have never seen the movie that is this musical's source material and can't speak to the differences in plot between the movie and stage version. As for the musical, it revolves around the students at two high schools, the upper-class, predominantly-white and privileged Truman High and the more ethnically diverse, more rough-and-tumble Jackson High. Over at Truman, Campbell has just been elected captain of the cheerleading squad for her upcoming senior year, the culmination of a lifelong goal. Before that goal can be realized, the school board does some redistricting and Campbell ends up having to spend her final year at Jackson, where she immediately does not fit in. With the help of her friend Bridget, who was also transferred to Jackson, and Danielle, the leader of Jackson's hip-hop crew, Campbell leads the students of Jackson all the way to the national cheerleading competition, where they must face off against her old friends from Truman High.
With a book by Jeff Whitty, who won a Tony Award for Avenue Q, there are high hopes for the parts of this musical that don't involve singing, dancing and cheerleading. Unfortunately, Whitty's work here is not nearly as original, witty or fun as in his other, Tony winning, show. Most of the scenes and dialogue here are pretty cliché and boilerplate. Lots of the usual stuff about fighting for what you want, achieving your dreams, not giving up, apologizing for mistakes, and so on and so forth. Many of the scenes seem tacked on or just there to cover for costume or set changes.
Luckily, there are far fewer of those scenes than there are moments of dance and song, with music by Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and lyrics by Miranda and Amanda Green. This is a pretty powerhouse group, Miranda, of course, created and starred in Hamilton, while Kitt wrote the fantastic Next to Normal and Kitt and Green collaborated on High Fidelity. This team doesn't disappoint in the least with Bring It On. The music is endlessly upbeat and entertaining, getting the audience tapping their toes from the very first moment.
Along with the great music are lyrics that are very smart, extremely witty and often laugh-out-loud funny. There's also a great balance in the music and lyrics, between big Broadway ballads and rap-filled hip-hop tunes. In the context of this show, none of it ever feels out of place and the songs always deliver just the right message for the moment in just the right tone and attitude. Highlights include "Do Your Own Thing," "One Perfect Moment," "It Aint No Thing," "Killer Instinct," and "We're Not Done."
Director Timothy Stewart also does a nice job of keeping the tone of the show just right, never letting anything be taken too seriously. Moments that are supposed to be over the top are just as big as they need to be, but the simpler and quieter moments strike an equally appropriate tone. Stewart has a clearly capable team helping him out, including excellent music direction by Todd S. Malicoate. Barbie Paker's cheer/stunt choreography is pulled off wonderfully and gives the audience exactly what they want in this show. The final climactic cheer/dance routine is close to being a show stopper. Even better is the dance choreography by Hui Cha Poos. Her fantastic choreography is never dull or boring. She gets her talented cast moving and keeps them moving in ways that may make the audience wish they could get up and dance with them.
As mentioned, the book is the show's weak spot and a big part of that is a total lack of any character development. We never get to know any of these people or learn any of their backgrounds or histories. While the actors involved may not have much of that stuff to work with, many of them do some fantastically entertaining and fun work in this show. Leading the way is Emily Paige Cleek as Campbell, who just wants to achieve her cheerleading dreams, until she realizes that those dreams may not even be the most important goal to reach for. Cleek is really marvelous in the role, basically carrying all of Act One on her shoulders. She's more than up to the task and maintains an amazing level of energy and chrisma throughout the first half and then on through Act Two as well. Cleek has a beautiful singing voice which she uses to its full effect, while also getting to prove her comic chops more than a few times.
As Danielle, the tough girl from Jackson High, Madison Hamilton is Cleek's equal, although Hamilton appears later in the show and therefore gets lets stage time overall. She's got a ton of charisma and attitude that she brings to the role, along with a beautiful singing voice. Add to that the fact that, like Cleek and almost everyone else in the show, she is a triple threat, able to nail the dance moves, singing and acting with equal amounts of skill.
Stealing many a scene is Jessica Higgs as Skylar, one of the cheerleaders at Truman. While Campbell may be the cheer captain, Skylar is the "alpha male" of the cheerleaders and Higgs gives her a wonderful and believable amount of snarkiness, sarcasm and don't-mess-with-me attitude. At the same time, Higgs allows Skylar to be sympathetic and gets the audience to like and even root for a character who could easily be far more one-note than she is here. Alongside Higgs is Hannah Finnegan as Kylar, another Truman cheerleader who idolizes Skylar. Kylar really is a one-note character but that isn't Finnegan's fault, as the script gives her almost nothing to do. Still, Finnegan gives it her all and gives the character as much life, energy and charisma as possible.
Perhaps getting to have the most fun is Phoebe Butts as Bridget, the student who gets transferred to Jackson with Campbell and becomes part of the new Jackson cheer squad. It's a classic "character" role and Butts nails it, providing most of the show's funniest moments. As Twig, the Jackson student who is smitten with Bridget, Aaron Stewart is also hilarious. The two have a great chemistry and Stewart has some impressive hip-hop skills. Christopher Shepard, Ellie Valdez and Joshua McGowen are also brilliant as some of the other Jackson High students, Cameron, Nautica and La Cienega, respectively. They are given more to do than the Truman students, are much more interesting characters to watch and the actors all bring a great amount of personality, energy and truth to the roles.
As with any big musical, there's a large cast, but also bearing mention are Laura Renfro who is hilarious as the diabolical, scheming Eva, who plots the downfall of Campbell so she can rule the cheerleading world, and Joshua McGowen who is understated but perfect as Randall, the nice guy at Jackson High who becomes Campbell's love interest.
While there are many great things about this production, the technical elements unfortunately fall far short. James A. Hughes' scene design is almost nonexistent, which isn't necessarily a bad thing but the lockers are cartoonish and the bedroom set is terrible. Scene changes are not handled well, including an upstage scene change happening loudly while a scene played out downstage. One technical highlight is some fantastic video projections that create a couple of hilarious moments. Michael Long's lighting design doesn't fare well, though, including moments where the actors were in light that was much too low and light changes that were really inexplicable or unnecessary. This wasn't helped by light changes that happened earlier or later than they should on the night I saw the show. Hopefully that will be fixed, along with fixing the constant loud crackling of the sound system. Michael James' costumes are great, though, perfectly fitting for the setting and story.
Technical problems aside, this is a perfect show for a summer evening, with choreography and singing that are as hot as the temperature outside. It is campy and fun, featuring some of our area's best young talent proving that they are very likely to be stars in the future. They're also clearly having a ton of fun and you're guaranteed to have just as much fun watching them.
Bring It On: The Musical will run June 9th through July 1st at the Pollard Theatre. Tickets are $30 with senior, military, student and teacher discounts available. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Thursdays June 15th and 22nd at 8:00 pm and Sundays June 18th and 25th at 2:00 pm. Tickets are available online at www.thepollard.org, by phone, 405-282-2800 or at the Pollard Box Office at 120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie, Oklahoma.
Pictured (L to R): Madison Hamilton and Emily Paige Cleek