Theater review: ‘Bring It On: The Musical’ at the Ahmanson Theatre
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Boisterous, obvious, stylistically confused and not-ready-for-Broadway, “Bring It On: The Musical” nevertheless makes competitive cheerleading seem like the most natural subject in the world for a traveling musical blockbuster.
Pompoms and bullhorns have little to do with it. The show, which opened Friday at the Ahmanson Theatre, the first stop on its national tour, rouses the audience more through its bounding, flipping, tumbling choreography than through its cutie-pie enthusiasm. It’s a reminder that somewhere between the early 1980s when I was busily not attending varsity football games and the expansion of ESPN into all manner of athletic sweat, cheerleading went from a dainty hobby to a daredevil contact sport.
High school musicals, as one lucrative Disney franchise attests, don’t have to be great or even all that good to be a success. By that measure, “Bring It On” has decent odds of becoming a commercial road hit, appealing to family audiences eager to escape into a world that is a kinetic cartoon of their everyday reality.
Examine the show purely as a specimen of the modern American musical, however, and it comes up short. It’s frustrating to enjoy the idea of a big, splashy theatrical production more than the reality. The creators — and boy, are there a lot of them — always seem to be in entertainment arrears, unable to fulfill the expectations that accompany a musical of this size. To compensate, they resort to silly dream sequences and a sprightly (if ludicrous) leprechaun-mascot dance extravaganza. (Most of the shtick stays safely within G-rated limits, but the way the show drags on may have some spectators muttering less child-friendly words under their breath.) The intense cardio-dance routines, choreographed with gymnastic vim and vigor by the director, Andy Blankenbuehler, are a surefire way of raising the musical’s pulse. They’re also infinitely preferable to the cartwheels and somersaults of Jeff Whitty’s protracted libretto (yes, they’re calling this plot-heavy machine, inspired by the 2000 movie “Bring It On,” written by Jessica Bendinger, a libretto). Whitty, who won a Tony for his book for “Avenue Q,” is a geyser of kooky charm and clever reversals, but the story too often belabors what should be dispatched in theatrical shorthand.
The sluggishness of this tale of two high schools, one a bastion of perky suburban ruthlessness, the other a multicultural underdog that embraces outcasts and spurns conformists, is compounded by the show’s musical load. With music by Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”) and lyrics by Amanda Green (“High Fidelity”) and Miranda, “Bring It On” sets up a songwriting battle that’s almost as fierce as the competition being waged by the cheerleading squads.
It makes sense that Truman High School would have a generic pop sound while Jackson High School, where Truman’s fanatically dedicated cheerleading captain, Campbell (Taylor Louderman), gets sent under suspicious redistricting circumstances, would have a more hip-hop blend. But the patchwork score, although nicely orchestrated and arranged by Kitt and musical supervisor Alex Lacamoire, swells rather than gels.
Frankly, it’s a relief when Campbell marches through Jackson’s metal detector, a Dorothy wrenched from her bratty safety zone into a forbidding yet vibrant Oz, leaving behind the soulless “American Idol”-ish blather of “You Are My Heroes” and “It’s Right in Front of You” for the funkier freestyle of “Do Your Own Thing.” Miranda’s patented ability to infuse Broadway R&B with linguistically frolicsome rap would appear to be behind the surge in energy that comes with the shift in scene, but whoever the responsible party may be deserves credit for providing fresh buoyancy to music and lyrics that had until this time seemed baked in a microwave (no fault, by the way, of the hard-driving orchestra).
Unfortunately, the synthetic spirit of Truman is never entirely banished from a show that can’t conceal its assembly-line origins. David Korins’ unprepossessing sets, clearly built to travel, try to conjure polar opposite high school worlds. But the only object that sparks vivid memories is the electronic scoreboard. The rest is coldly industrial, the use of video screens exacerbating the overall impersonal feeling of the staging.
Novels and movies about high school can be such regressive fun, building a gossipy alternative universe around in-groups and the oddballs excluded from them. Whitty may have trouble moving the action along at a brisk clip, but he certainly maps out two distinct camps of characters with a caricaturist’s pen.
Truman’s cutthroat spirit is represented by vain, shallow Skylar (Kate Rockwell) and the duplicitous Eva (Elle McLemore), a young cheerleading recruit who hides her Eve Harrington ambition behind a smiling pipsqueak façade. Jackson has a wider range of types, including Danielle (Adrienne Warren), the take-no-nonsense leader of “the crew” (the school’s defiant answer to a cheerleading squad), and La Cienega (Gregory Haney), just your ordinary supremely self-confident high school drag queen.
The only person Campbell knows at Jackson is Bridget (Ryann Redmond), a chubby cheerleading reject from Truman whose popularity has soared since she was also required to change schools. Apparently, the boys at Jackson, especially the infatuated, undeterrable Twig (Nicolas Womack), like a girl with a little “junk in the trunk.” More important, everyone at this fantasy low-income high school respects when a person has the audacity to be a true individual rather than part of a flock — an attitude that will force Campbell to rethink her value system as she tries to build a squad at her new school that can defeat evil Eva and her former teammates at the national championships.
Given how broadly the characters are written (Bridget is a tubby-freak darling; Twig, seemingly imported from “In the Heights,” is a sassy one-note imp), it’s commendable that Louderman’s Campbell and Warren’s Danielle are permitted a fair amount of understatement. Warren has more natural star quality of the two — the role of Campbell could use the soap bubble laughter of a young Alicia Silverstone, whom Louderman uncannily resembles — but a believable camaraderie develops between them, just as it does between Campbell and Jason Gotay’s appealing Randall, her surprising nonjock love interest.
“Bring It On,” which has apparently been retooled since its world premiere at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, pants toward the finish line. The exertion that goes into “Cross the Line,” the calisthenic number in which the Jackson squad gets to show off its newly acquired moves at nationals, is exhausting for the audience as well as the company. By this point I found myself yawning, “Ho, hum, another death-defying leap. Hope no one gets hurt.”
Never have I been so aware of calories burned onstage before. But who goes to a musical to vicariously sweat? “Bring It On” has interminable pep but leaves more discerning theatergoers with little to cheer about.
— Charles McNulty
‘Bring It On: The Musical,’ Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 8 p.m.Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions). Ends December 10. $20 to $120. (213) 972-4400 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org/BringItOn Running time: 2 hour, 30 minutes