And even though I liked the first movie in the series, I wasn’t excited about seeing this show. I was wrong, and you will be too, if you miss it.
The plot is different from the original film, but it does have aspects of it and one of the others. Here, the cheer captain (blonde and adorable, of course) is Campbell Davis (Bourbon, MO native Taylor Louderman) who has it all (in the high school sense): The grades, the friends, the squad, and the guy. The other girls are stereotypes too, but the fun kind. Skylar (Kate Rockwell) is the queen bee who exerts so much influence that her friend (and minion) “Kylar” (Janet Krupin) changed her name from Inez because “Skylar told me to, so I did.” She’s just that kinda girl. Sophomore Eva (Elle McLemore) tries out for the squad, and she appears to hero worship Campbell who decides to add her to the Truman High School group which is the heavy favorite for the national championship, Campbell’s lifelong dream.
Complications, as they must, occur. Campbell is transferred across town to Jackson High School, which, while it has a dance crew, doesn’t have cheerleaders. Fortunately, she ends up with a friend, fellow transfee, Bridget (Ryann Redmond), the good-humored mascot at Truman for the past three years who desperately wants to be a cheerleader. But the cool kids just laugh at her because she’s fat. However, before she finds Bridget, Campbell runs into Danielle (Adrienne Warren), her counterpart at Jackson, who is the leader of the crew and overall boss of everyone. Her girls are Nautica (Ariana DuBose) and La Cienega (Gregory Haney, terrific and even inspiring as a transgender teen).
Once everything settles down, Campbell learns something that makes her determined to fulfill her dream of winning nationals, even if she has to stretch the truth a bit to get the Jackson students into her idea of school spirit. Along the way, there is a sweet subplot about her and her new beau, Randall (Jason Gotay), who is considerably smarter than her Truman guy, Steven (Neil Haskell), a self-described “trigtard.” For her part, Bridget attracts Twig (a very funny Nicolas Womack) who thinks that booty is beautiful.
How this all plays out is part of the fun of "Bring it On", but what had the audience cheering was the, well, cheering. It is flat-out amazing. The laws of physics do not apply to these people. The dancing chorus is filled with championship-winning cheerleaders, and it shows. There were no accidents on opening night, but there is a protective padded cage over the orchestra pit, presumably to break any potential falls, and also protect the musicians from falling bodies.
However, it’s equally important to note the singing and dancing abilities of the principal cast. Most of these performers are quite young; in fact, Louderman got the part after her sophomore year at the University of Michigan and it’s her first lead since she played Annie at Ozark Actor’s Studio when she was ten. But she has the moves and the pipes. She’s only out-sung by her co-lead, Warren, who has amazing vocal presence and range. Of course, everyone in the show can move, and the choreography by Tony Award winner (for "In the Heights") Andy Blankenbuehler, who also directs, is stunningly good. He brings it all to this show, from girl-group moves to steampunk style. When Taylor arrives at Jackson, Danielle tells her “Welcome to Thunderdome,” which later is echoed in a dark number, one of the highlights of the otherwise bright and peppy show.
"Bring it On"is a national tour, but an unusual one, in that it opened in 2011 in Atlanta and hopes to play New York. I’m rooting for "Bring it On", a Fox Associates production, to do just that. I was told that the creators are still tinkering with it (there is no song list in the program, for example). But I’d be surprised if they could make it much better. It certainly has the pedigree for Broadway. Its all-star, award-winning team includes librettist, Jeff Whitty (Tony, "Avenue Q"); music and lyrics, Lin-Manuel Miranda (Tony, "In the Heights"); music, Tom Kitt (Tony and Pulitzer—he’s an overachiever—"Next to Normal"); lyrics (Amanda Green); and music supervision by Tony and Grammy winner Alex Lacamoire ("Wicked").
The Fox stage is decked out by David Korins, complete with a countdown clock to curtain (which belongs in every presentation, I’ve decided, because not only did it add to the excitement, but the show actually started on time) and it uses drop down screens to good effect with minimal scenery to be moved out of the way for the space-filling routines. The lighting designer, Jason Lyons, sets the appropriate mood for every moment, and the costumes are perfect for each character. Andrea Lauer gets credit. The show sounds great too and is by Brian Ronan.
There’s a lot here for adults to enjoy—even a Jackson Pollock hickey joke, plus other references the little ones aren’t going to get, but you will. Like the “Peanuts” comic strip crew, there are no parents or teachers either. The whole focus is on the young people and the world of high school, and all of us who have been through the experience know it is a world unto itself. With regard to the storyline, a key plot point is telegraphed from miles away, but that doesn’t matter much at all. It’s actually rather clever how little bits of story are pulled from multiple sources.
The show is appropriate for kids over 10 (according to the press material) but I saw a lot of girls younger than that and they were enrapt. And therein lies my one objection: There are just as many male cheerleaders are female on this stage, and yet, as a rule, girls are the ones who aspire to be the Taylors and the Danielles. Still, there are good lessons to be learned here about friendship, bullying, winning and losing, and the fact that there is life after high school. Also, respect for cheerleading as a sport is demanded and delivered. So, overall, the show’s heart is in the right place, and I’d love to take some kids to see it. Just don’t leave the boys at home, m’kay?