Regional Reviews: Chicago
Bring It On
Also see John's review of The Price
Much of the authenticity in the Jackson High scenes can be credited to the songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The producers took the unusual step of hiring two teams of songwriters for the show, reportedly Miranda for the characters-of-color's songs and Tom Kitt and Amanda Green for the white kids' songs, though neither the Playbill nor press kit reveal who wrote what. Miranda's hip-hop and R&B infused numbers feel like the musical vocabulary those characters would use to express themselves and are as excitingly fresh as his work for In the Heights. Whitty's book is kinder to these characters as well. The songs they are given to sing are decent, rock-infused tunes in the style of Kitt's songs for High Fidelity and Next to Normal, though I would picture the characters for whom they're written more likely to sing something in a more traditionally melodic pop vein.
Whitty's book alternates the action between Truman and Jackson. The story has Campbell, the Senior head cheerleader at Truman and mentor to sophomore Eva (Elle McLemore), inexplicably transferred to Jackson in an odd bit of redistricting just before a year in which Truman's cheerleading team is favored to win the national championship. It turns out Jackson doesn't even have a cheerleading squad, so Campbell has to win over their girls' hip hop crew and convince them to form a cheerleading squad to compete against Truman's and make it to nationals. Like I said, gritty or not, this is still musical theater-land. Whitty peppers the script with a lot of jokes, some which land, othersmostly familiar barbs at the expense of bubble-brained blondeswhich don't. If the show has a split personality, one that feels too much like Legally Blonde and another that's genuinely sympathetic to kids of lesser means, the two parts share a uniformly talented cast and a large amount of stunning choreography. Blankenbuehler, who serves as choreographer as well as director, has created dances that encompass cheerleading gymnastics as well as hip-hop moves. The ensemble executes the dances with great precision and energylots of somersaults and backflips among themand sings quite capably.
Ms. Louderman smartly finds a middle ground between the shallowness of the Truman world and the depth needed to be able to relate to her new classmates at Jackson. Adrienne Warren, who impressed as Lorrell in the recent tour of Dreamgirls, is a knockout as Danielle, the leader of Jackson's crew who Campbell must win over. There's also a very winning performance from Ryann Redmond as Bridget, the "full-figured" girl who, transferred to Jackson along with Campbell, is seen as more attractive in the new environment. Romantic interest for the girls (the characters as well as the target audience of tween/teen girls) is capably provided by Neil Haskell and Jason Gotay as Campbell's current and future boyfriends, and Nicolas Womack as the runty guy who wins over Bridget.
David Korins' set effectively uses video projections on moving monitors that fly and rotate around the space, nicely suggesting the environments of high school hallways, gymnasiums and stadiums. The costumes by Andrea Lauer include standard-issue cheerleading uniforms, of course, but are much more varied and impressive with the everyday apparel worn by the kids at Jackson.
There are a number of moments that work quite well at developing plot and character in traditional musical comedy terms. The second-act opener, "It's All Happening," is a very effective "I want" number for the Jackson kids as Campbell convinces them to compete as cheerleaders. "It Ain't No Thing" is a great R&B comedy number in which Bridget's new "girlfriends" at Jackson (one of whom is a cross-dressing boy played winningly by Gregory Haney) coach her on how to respond to her newfound attention from boys.
The producers have Broadway hopes for this production and have reportedly been making revisions during the tour. It'll be easy for this to be dismissed as another attempt to profit from the lucrative market of tween/teen girls that has made such a money machine of Wicked. That is no doubt on the producers' minds, and this is already a show that will do well with that segment. The extent to which they can increase its heart, and eschew some of the easy jokes and familiar targets will influence whether Bring It On's audience appeal will be more like Wicked's, or more like Legally Blonde's.
Bring It On: The Musical will play the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago, through March 25, 2012. For ticket information, visit BroadwayinChicago.com, any BIC box office or call Ticketmaster at 800-775-2000.