Bring It On, the hit-film-to-hopeful-hit Broadway musical at the St. James Theatere relies on a theatrical formula that I’ve not seen of late. The two-hour plus show that is at alternate times exasperating, exhilarating, sloppy, tight, slow, exuberant, innocent, sexy, clunky, awe-inspiring, clever, corny, witty, vague, dazzling, and delightfully ridiculous brings you to the curtain call cheering something other than the sets or the music or because of the basic concept that says you are expected to rise and applaud big-time—Bring It On ultimately works, and works quite well, because the creators have put together an outstanding cast who all excel in their roles.
Watching this all-youthful crew, I was reminded of a time when I’d come out of a show talking about how good all the actors were; commenting on their clever timing, their singing, their amazing energy, and their basic understanding of creating sharp-witted, memorable characters. Too often we leave the theater thinking “How on earth did she get cast?” and then playing the basic “I wonder who’s sleeping with whom” game. Like “Smash” plots but more believable.
Taylor Louderman kicks off the production as cheerleader captain and all-around peppy white girl Campbell, filling in—sort of—for Kirstin Dunst’s film character. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the under-rated movie Bring It On, but what I do remember tells me that enough liberties to make a statue have been taken for the stage show. Louderman is almost forced to carry the show, and if there’s a little strain, it’s hardly her fault. Her energy never lets up, song after song, cheer after cheer, line after line—speaking and chorus. There are traces of Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods in her character, yet both Louderman’s performance and this production are more accessible fun.
Kate Rockwell is a scene stealer as Skylar, the basic too pretty, too popular, too stuck-up girl who, thanks to Rockwell’s wonderful comic skills, is too good not to be likeable. This is a harder role than most people imagine, and a less-talented actress would only scratch the surface of some gem-filled lines. Rockwell’s role almost vanishes as the show progresses, and it’s detrimental to the evening’s fun. Also savvy is Elle McLemore as Eva, the ruthless cheerleader queen wanna-be. McLemore, unlike Rockwell, starts out in generic fashion, then gets prime time in Act II, even her own smart number, “Killer Instinct” (one of many songs in the second act that girls are going to be imitating all the way home, and after they play the soundtrack a hundred times).
The fan favorite and most relatable character will probably be Ryann Redmond as Bridget, the unpopular girl with a heart, and booty, of gold. Redmond is a skilled enough actress to bring the character subtext beyond curtain call, and she’s that so-called-life girl that most of us, male or female, actually were back in high school.
And I’ve just gone through half the cast. Bring It On is your basic West Side Story meets Mean Girls meets Chariots of Fire story, covering, along the way, racism, bigotry, homosexual acceptance (Gregory Haney skillfully plays drag queen La Cienega), and sheer pluck. While Campbell starts out as cheerleader for her school, she’s transferred to the lower-class, mostly black Truman High, overcomes obstacles to make friends, re-starts her cheerleading goals, and goes on to participate in a Nationals Contest usually reserved for TV’s Glee, but with no distracting auto-tune.
I won’t give away any spoilers, and Bring It On doesn’t really require them. Unfortunately, the second cast of characters don’t have as much charm as the first—a problem raised by the fact that Director and Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler has pulled out all the stops in his first few numbers. Adrienne Warren plays Danielle, the rival popular girl, who’s solid and smart, but doesn’t get as much fun—or smart moves—as her counterparts. Love interest Randall (Jason Gotay) is one of the few cast members who’s resigned to being cute and supportive of the lead—and yet he does it with aplomb.
Bring It On is by no means a top-rate production. The hip-hop meets gymnastics choreography is at times sloppy, and often less than awe-inspiring. Blankenbuehler did it more successfully in his In the Heights, an overrated Electric Company-on-Steroids musical that put hip-hop at the center. As director, he’s made this show less ambitious but a lot more spirited.
The dancing treat here is the gymnastics, as the show blends in real tumblers with the cast. When it works, and you don’t notice who’s a lead and who’s part of the ensemble, it’s an impressive feat. But cheerleading, as my female date and former captain can tell you, is all about the lines and being clean. At times some of the flips are not perfectly in-sync, and, as that’s the major choreographed selling point, it should be even better. But don’t fault the tumblers themselves, who are all outstanding and deserve a tremendous amount of credit for their work. And you’re not going to forget them anytime soon, nor will you forget the young girls outside the theater screaming their pom-poms off when the heavyweight cast strolled out of the stage door.
On the, um, flip side, the sets by David Korins, the Lighting by Jason Lyons, and the Video Design by Jeff Sugg are stellar, and work in perfect harmony to enhance, not overpower the production. Video screens with Skype-like chats highlight the main action, and simple sets and screens create the sets. Spotlights are subtle and effective. Oh, yeah, and the music by Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel is not half-bad, which is often the best review you can get these days for an original score.
When Blankenbuehler gets sloppy and let’s the show lag, either in dance moves or action, you can count on all the other elements to keep you cheering. And if you saw last year’s similarly themed and disastrous Lysistrata Jones on Broadway, you can always take comfort in the fact that, despite any flaws, in comparison Bring It On topples the competition.
For more information, contact TeleCharge at www.telecharge.com. Photos: Joan Marcus.