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Chicago by John Olson

Bring It On
Cadillac Palace Theatre

Also see John's review of The Price

Bring It On
Adrienne Warren and Company
In bookwriter Jeff Whitty's reworking of Bring It On—with a different plot and characters than the 1990 film of this title, but based on a similar premise—a white, blonde cheerleader from a "good" high school is involuntarily transferred to a gritty inner-city one. The production design from the long set-up to this premise is brightly lit and colorful, with the "good" school's colors of red and white dominating, but when we arrive at the "bad" school, we're taken into a world of grays and dark blues. It's like the Wizard of Oz movie taking Dorothy from black and white Kansas to a colorful Oz, only in reverse. On her first day at the new school, called Jackson High, cheerleader Campbell (Taylor Louderman) sets off an alarm going through a metal detector. Literally, it's the items in her purse that set off the alarm, but the gut impression is that it's her out-of-place-ness that causes the red alert. And just as in The Wizard of Oz, it's here where the story takes off. The action up to then—the show's first 25 minutes or so—has been a familiar satire of privileged young people as mean, vacuous and selfish, a premise that we've seen a million times before in movies like Mean Girls, TV's "Glee" and Bring It On's producers' own Legally Blonde: The Musical. Once we get to the "bad" school, though, Bring it On starts to feel like something different and more substantial. And while things are idealized in a way we'd expect for a musical comedy—the tough kids turn out to be more decent than the rich kids at Truman, the neighboring school—it's still a world where drug deals are done in the school hallways and it feels like an honest enough translation of that gritty reality into musical theatre-land. Though none of the show's characters are what I'd call fleshed-out, the lower-class kids are shown to have a humanity that neither Whitty nor director Andy Blankenbuehler allow the rich kids. The actors playing the white kids at Truman are directed to play their parts broadly and comment on their characters rather than simply playing them honestly.

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, others—mostly familiar barbs at the expense of bubble-brained blondes—which 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 energy—lots of somersaults and backflips among them—and 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.


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-- John Olson



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