How many Hairsprays do New York theatregoers need at any one time? Well, they've temporarily got two: Though there are some superficial differences between But I'm a Cheerleader, which just opened at the Theatre at St. Clement's as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, and the splashy Broadway musical at the Neil Simon, the two are essentially cut from the same cloth, for better or worse.
Or, more accurately, for better and worse. But I'm a Cheerleader is a few shades more earnest and less overly polished than Hairspray, but it's also less effective as both a piece of entertainment and as social commentary. Its writers (Bill Augustin for book and lyrics, Andrew Abrams for music) have worked hard enough to turn out a basic show that basically works, but not hard enough to make it distinguished enough to do justice to its underlying ideas.
In that way, and that way only, it's a fine adaptation of Jamie Babbit and Brian Wayne Peterson's lackluster 1999 film. The movie, though, told its story about a lesbian cheerleader who's forced by her family and friends into a sexual reorientation camp with a gritty, satirical slant. If it was never really funny, it at least had the kind of, well, John Waters sensibility the material demanded.
Augustin and Abrams, though, have sanded down so many of the film's rough edges that only mechanical musical comedy remains. While a number of lines remain intact from the film, there's hardly a trace remaining of its demented weirdness, the sense of foreboding hanging over the True Directions campers, whose futures depend on them straightening out in time for graduation.
The score and choreography (the busy but lifeless work of Wendy Seyb), though, are conventional to the point of distraction: There's a bathetically bouncy opening number for the lesbian cheerleader Megan (Chandra Lee Schwartz) to tout the virtues of youth ("Seventeen is Swell"); there are plenty of would-be comedy songs for the harried True Directions doyenne (Blair Ross) to develop her naivety; and obligatory character numbers for Megan and Graham (Kelly Karbacz), the girl she falls for at the camp, to remind us of the importance of love, regardless of gender boundaries.
This is all solid, basic musical comedy thinking. It's also utterly wrong for this show. The story is a critique, pointed and specific, about intolerance and coming to terms with personal identity. This isn't the kind of show that should waste time with a springy quartet spout sentiments as maudlin as "Love is a Funny Thing," contain any sort of dream ballet (even if only moderately serious in tone), or use three cheerleaders as a scene-setting Greek chorus. And it certainly shouldn't have a gospel number that tries to stop the show before there's a show to stop, or a finale that's absurdly similar in look, sound, and bring-the-disbelievers-around-at-the-last-moment attitude as Hairspray's "You Can't Stop the Beat."
Yet all these elements are present here. The writers want their newfangled subject matter wrapped up in the mantle of a traditional, inoffensive musical, but they can't have it both ways if they also want it exciting. This is a story that has to challenge and has to risk offense, otherwise it's meaningless. This show, ultimately, is exactly that.
The production, however, is brightly polished: Daniel Goldstein stages everything with sunny smoothness, and the design (particularly Heather Dunbar's rainbow-palette costumes) give the show plenty of visual pop. The performers take care of the rest, and all 20 work their hardest to sell the material: Schwartz has a mammoth role that she handles with spunky aplomb, Karbacz provides for her an intriguing romantic interest, and Kevin-Anthony brings a truckload of soulful swagger to his roles as a one of the camp's enthusiastic (if effete) faculty members, and as a drag queen chanteuse in a scene set in a gay bar. But we've seen each and every one of them before.
Only Natalie Joy Johnson creates a truly vivid, original character; her butch Goth-girl Sinead is the only one with the right edgy quirkiness to give the show the dark dimensions it needs. Near the end of the first act, when she learns of Megan and Graham's burgeoning, forbidden relationship, the brief lines she angrily sings resonate with the kind of violent glee, unrestrained passion, and dangerous intensity you've been craving from the show since the first scene.
Of course, it's not long before the writers once again resume their platitudinous ways. But it's nice, if only for a few moments, to have something really worth cheering about.
New York Musical Theatre Festival