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As you might surmise from the title, Bring It On: The Musical is based on a motion picture, one you likely never heard of. The lightweight teen comedy, written by Jessica Bendinger, was released in 2000 to a conspicuous lack of critical acclaim or mass appeal. But the producers, led by Universal Pictures Stage Productions, bring an all-star team aboard to lift the story of rival cheerleading teams and enhance the musical pulse. Jeff Whitty, the Tony Award winner for the book of Avenue Q, is on board as librettist; Tom Kitt, who co-writes the score, won his Tonys (plus a Pulitzer) for his composing and arranging talents on Next to Normal; and Lin-Manuel Miranda, co-writing both the score and the lyrics, picked up his Tony for In the Heights. So there were likely heavyweight aspirations when the new team was assembled to transform Hollywood schlock into Broadway gold.
Sure, the Kitt-Miranda score (with lyrics by Amanda Green and Miranda) has its moments, particularly when we abandon lily-white Truman High School for hipper hip-hop milieu of déclassé Jackson High. Yet the writing team is thoroughly upstaged by director/choreographer Andy Blakenbuehler, a Tony winner in his own right for the choreography of In the Heights. Whitty's new storyline is more politically correct than the movie's, combining tried-and-true motifs from Hairspray and All About Eve – our evil mastermind is even named Eva – but only one or two of the characters has appreciable depth and neither the personal relationships nor the team rivalry ever catches fire. What wows us, over and over, is the cheerleading. From beginning to end, the routines are studded with precise synchronicity, exuberant tumbling, human pyramids, and high-risk airborne flips and tosses.
On ESPN2, competitive cheerleading is capable of holding my attention through a maximum of two routines. Transport that spectacle from the 36-diagonal-inch screen in my living room to the full width of the Belk Theater stage – and nearly all of its height – and those quaint little flying Barbie dolls are transformed into thrilling daredevil athletes. Suddenly, I realized that there is no other team sport I could think of that adapts nearly as well to the stage.
That is the only genius I find in Bring It On: The Musical, but I did see some prodigious talent. As our narrator, Campbell, Taylor Louderman is one of several players who must sing, dance, and fly without the benefit of Foy and his Spider-Man descendants. But unlike the others, Campbell is three-dimensional and changed by the end of the evening, and she sings while flying. Elle McLemore is appropriately steely, overconfident, and deranged as Eva, the conniver who manages to usurp the captain spot on the Truman High team by getting Campbell redistricted to Jackson, but her full comeuppance remains on back order. As Danielle, the crew leader at Jackson, hip-hop diva Adrienne Warren is nearly the co-star opposite Louderman, but there is too little variety in her music, and her comedy is invariably delivered in a Jackée intonation that grows tiresome.
The Hairspray elements come not only from the support Campbell gets from her new black friends in plotting vengeance against her patrician tormentor but also from the blossoming of Bridget, perennially belittled as the ugly, chunky mascot at Truman but suddenly allowed to join the crew at Jackson and then attracting a beau. Derivative yes, but Ryann Redmond makes Bridget a sunny 3D character. The best of Whitty's storyline comes when Bridget and Campbell reverse roles – or places on the pecking order – at Jackson, with Campbell obliged to dance in a demeaning mascot outfit.
At the risk of giving away the ending, let me just say that I found it profoundly unsatisfying. For all their pre-game woofing at nationals, the Jackson High team tries way too hard to lose the championship. That and the whole All About Eve strain in Whitty's book make it clear that, unlike Bendinger's screenplay, our adapter is ambivalent about cheerleading, unsure whether to mock or glorify it. The prize should be worth the winning – and the most deserving team should win – or else this musical needs to be radically rewritten.
And why, with so many more guys on the creative team reshaping the story, aren't the men better written? Campbell's boyfriend at Truman and her upgrade at Jackson barely leap off the page, wasting whatever talents Neil Haskell and Jason Gotay, respectively, brought to auditions. More engaging is Nicolas Womack as Twig, the Jackson rapper who finds Bridget irresistible. Ironically, the most arresting man onstage is muscular Gregory Haney as Jackson drag queen La Cienaga. Haney racks up the most bon mots at Jackson High. Surprisingly, that honor at Truman goes to the school's alpha female, Skylar, frankly snooty and proud to be vapid. Kate Rockwell is positively majestic in the role, nearly as queenly as Haney.
The show continues through April 15. For details, see the sidebar.