Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - August 1, 2012
Bring it On: The Musical Libretto by Jeff Whitty. Music by Tom Kitt & Lin-Manuel Miranda. Lyrics by Amanda Green & Lin-Manuel Miranda. Inspired by the Motion Picture Bring It On written by Jessica Bendinger. Directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. Music supervision & dance arrangements by Alex Lacamoire. Set design by David Korins. Costume design by Andrea Lauer. Lighting design by Jason Lyons. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Video design by Jeff Sugg. Hair & wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Arrangements & orchestrations by Alex Lacamoire & Tom Kitt. Cast: Taylor Louderman, Adrienne Warren, Jason Gotay, Elle McLemore, Ryann Redmond, Ariana DeBose, Gregory Haney, Neil Haskell, Dominique Johnson, Janet Krupin, Kate Rockwell, Nicolas Womack, Calli Alden, Antwan Bethes, AJ Blankenship, Nikki Bohne, Danielle Carlacci, Dexter Carr, Courtney Corbeille, Dahlston Delgado, Brooklyn Alexis Freitag, Shonica Gooden, Keith Gross, Haley Hannah, Rod Harrelson, Casey Jamerson, Melody Mills, Michael Mindlin, Michael Naone-Carter, Adrianna Parson, David Ranck, Bettis Richardson, Billie Sue Roe, Sheldon Tucker, Lauren Whitt.
I know what you're thinking, because I thought it myself. How could a musical version of a semi-popular tween movie about rival cheerleaders from 12 years ago, which spawned four direct-to-video follow-ups, possibly achieve even this basic level of distinction? The answer is one that ought to be remembered by any producers pursuing a screen-to-stage adaptation based on the property's name alone, and have at least a moderate interest in putting on something that's a good show rather than merely a good sell: It engaged experienced Broadway talents who know how to make something of nothing.
Each of the members of the creative team has excelled in one or more theatre projects that never should have worked. Librettist Jeff Whitty filled the same role on the raunchy Sesame Street take-off, Avenue Q. Composer Tom Kitt plumbed psychology to riveting musical effect in the Pulitzer Prize–winning Next to Normal, though he was in even better form with the short-lived (but itself deceptively substantial) High Fidelity. Lyricist Amanda Green worked with Kitt on that show, providing some of the most memorable new Broadway lyrics of the decade. Lin-Manuel Miranda, credited with both music and lyrics here, wrote the score for the charmingly old-fashioned Latin-themed musical In the Heights. And director Andy Blankenbuehler won a Tony for his evocative expanded-street dances in that show.
The result is a musical that wears its limitations on its sleeve, but never falls victim to them. Nor does it succumb to the notion that the only way to survive the ordeal is to make constant fun of the form in which it unfolds. Its plot is far from complex: Following the spirit, rather than the letter, of the movies, it examines Campbell (Taylor Louderman) as she assembles a crack pep squad at Truman High, but is redistricted to Jackson where she teams up with the leader of the school's dance "crew," Danielle (Adrienne Warren), to fashion a group capable of taking on the Truman bunch, which is now led by the too-enterprising sophomore Eva (Elle McLemore). But the show is honest from beginning to end, and that's always the crucial jumping-off point.
But everything is drawn in unexpectedly rich colors. Skylar, for example, isn't a one-joke bit, but is supremely focused and self-aware: "I like myself," she says as she realizes everyone else is evolving while she is not, "always did." (That Rockwell plays her with such intensely serious relish also helps a great deal.) Danielle's closest cohorts are not just window dressing, but figure prominently into helping Campbell evolve into a better person, with the most obvious of them, La Cienega (played, straight as it were, by the male actor Gregory Haney), in no way a surface-level cliché. And Blankenbuehler's (literally) high-flying competition routines between the two groups, which cap both acts, are clearly the product of relentlessly trained and drilled theatre artists who know how to deliver the goods time and time again, and merely thrown in for effect.
The songs are a bit more one-dimensional, sad to say, with anthemic titles like "What I Was Born to Do," "One Perfect Moment," and "We're Not Done" that spell out the simplistic storytelling in unambiguous terms. But Kitt's and Miranda's musical contributions are, as always, addictive, enough so that the constant hard-sell singing never grows wearying. David Korins's gymnasium-styled and Jeff Sugg's video design have "tour" written all over them, but are attractive and original enough in their own right, and they're nicely complemented by Andrea Lauer's upbeat costumes and Jason Lyons's excellent lighting.
Though McLemore never quite transcends Eva's hissable nature to make her a flesh-and-blood antagonist, the rest of the company manages to create recognizable people from the plastic figurines they've been given to act. Louderman is particularly winning, fashioning a Campbell who's optimistic and success-hungry, but never overly so, and with a likeable belt that soars utterly without stridency. Redmond finds a charming pathos in Bridget that anchors her to reality even as her personal plot twists become increasingly eye-rolling. And Haney so confidently commands the stage as La Cienega that he can stop the show with a simple eyebrow-raised glare or twist of his hand.
Such tricks are tools of the theatre, and rarely appear in any useful form in any musical designed to extend a brand rather than to express ideas. Yet here they are in full, scintillating form. It's yet another of the many surprises of a show that seems determined to show how far it can push a concept that, by its nature, doesn't want to move at all. As much as I hope Broadway authors and producers will eventually return to the old days of truly transformative movie adaptions like Sweet Charity, A Little Night Music, Nine, Grand Hotel, if they're willing to consider making future entries as relatively smart and fresh as this one, all I can say is: Bring them on.