“Bring It On, the musical” tour (review), Chicago

BRING IT ON, the new musical now on tour across North America aiming for Broadway is, in short. a very good musical waiting for a great musical to emerge. Seen at a Saturday Matinee at Chicago’s Cadillac Palace (the closest the show is coming to the area), the musical is none-the-less a standing-ovation, sold-out-house hit at the venue, and I have to admit, I and my theater partners had a great time.

Starring University of Michigan student Taylor Louderman, the cast is exceptional — in fact, they are better than the source material throughout. Most of the young (and hot) cast are on stage the entire two and a half hours. Comprised of Broadway veterans and a lot of new talent (much of it from the cheerleading/dance team/gymnastics circuits) the show concerns two rival cheerleading squads heading to regionals, and then nationals.

Any resemblance to the movie version of Bring It On stops at the name of the show and characters. This productions has an original book that combines equal parts Footloose, Legally Blonde, and every other teenage musical you have ever seen. It also borrows generously from All About Eve.  The libretto is by Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), the Music by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (In The Heights), and Lyrics by Miranda and Amanda Green (High Fidelity). The score is strong. The book needs a little tightening in Act I, but in all reality, from the moment the show leaves lily-white Truman High and heads to rival more-diverse Jackson High, the show takes flight (and often stays there, 20 feet off the ground).

The entire cast is energized by Andy Blankenbuehler’s direction and choreography. Let me come clean right here — I was a university cheerleader, and the moves and routines in this production are genuine, accurate, and well-adapted into musical numbers. The aerials (sometimes more than 20 feet in height) are higher than regulation of course, but they are breath-taking on stage. Otherwise, it pretty much represents what it is.

Co-billed with cheerleader Louderman (as Campbell) is the superb Adrienne Warren, as tough-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold Danielle. Also worthy of attention is overweight Bridget (an exquisite Ryann Redmond) and uberbitch Eva (Elle McLemore).  The men have less interesting roles (but much more to do). Charisma-free Jason Gotay needs to be replaced pre-Broadway as Randall. But watch the ensemble — for example Dahlston Delgado (himself a multi-award winner in cheering) is in virtually almost every scene. The other men and women of the ensemble change costumes as quickly as possible to become various members of the rival squads.

The set design by David Korins seamlessly integrates video, and the Lighting Design by Jason Lyons is eye-popping. The entire production is designed to move as quickly and as energetically as the performers on stage – often integrating live stage movement with video and screen movement across the stage. A particularly nice effect is the ticking countdown clock on-stage that merrily blinks to life 6:38 before the top of the show and counts down to the very first scene with dazzling effect — the crowd actually counts down the seconds during the last half minute, and it’s an exciting effect at 0:00 — in another brilliant example, one of the actors lets out an outraged scream up stage left and the video screens and lighting take it from there as the animated scream travels in concentric circles across the various elements of the set. Brilliant work.

So — here’s the scoop. The show does need some work prior to Broadway, in particular in giving the first half hour of the show a speed-pill to zip the action along; granted it’s used to introduce characters, but they are so paper-thin here that not that much exposition is required to get the ball rolling. The current effect is in essence that the first 25 minutes or so kind-of follows the original movie version of Bring It On; and then it suddenly veers off into its own delerious universe and never references the original again…so why start there?…

Second — this score is terrific. It really is. What isn’t so great is the constant interruption of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap into the songs, where exposition and a lyrical line would work better. Sure, its designed to offset the suburban school from the urban school, but it doesn’t work. The hiphop numbers themselves are excellent. Where rap was used to define specific character traits in In the Heights, here it just gets in the way and makes the whole thing feel fake. I suppose this is where my own bias comes into play, since I hate rap.

Finally, the script needs to give Louderman’s Campbell a touch more of heart. Kirsten Dunst in the movie had it to spare, and it made you feel something when the rival teams go at it in the climactic final sequence. Here, it’s a rather dull finish to what has been a fast race to the Nationals.

But let me conclude by saying that this show is virtually critic-proof. It has a built-in fan base already, and the rowdy, cheering, screaming teenagers at the performance I saw are probably indicative of the general reception this show will have nationwide and eventually on Broadway — Give the audience some funny characters to laugh at; some brilliant dance routines to cheer for; and some fine-looking technology to back it all up, and your target audience will eat this show up for years.

For more information, and tour schedule, see http://www.bringitonmusical.com/

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