A fair warning to fans of the 2000 teen comedy Bring It On: The franchise’s new stage iteration is not a line-for-line rehash. Instead, think ”inspired by.” Say goodbye to fan-favorite character ”Big Red,” the Toros, and (very sadly) that infinitely repeatable ”Brrr, it’s cold in here” chant supplied by the East Compton Clovers (who, yes, have also been jettisoned).
But Bring It On: The Musical, which plays at L.A.?s Ahmanson Theatre through Dec. 10 before continuing on a 13-city nationwide tour, still manages to catch the equal parts peppy and biting nature of the movie with an original, equally absurd story. Instead of Kirsten Dunst’s Torrance Shipman, new book writer Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) gives us a new blonde heroine: Truman High School senior cheer captain Campbell (Taylor Louderman), who’s unexpectedly transferred to the more urban, squad-less Jackson High School across town. Jackson, boasts a hip-hop crew led not by Gabrielle Union’s Isis but Queen B Danielle (Adrienne Warren). Naturally, Campbell wants to join, but Danielle puts the white girl through one hell of a hazing ritual — she has to boogie down as a ridiculous leprechaun mascot — that results in the weird and laugh-out-loud funny number ”Friday Night, Jackson.” Campbell snags a spot on the crew and, eventually, convinces Danielle to turn it into a real cheerleading squad so she can compete against her former schoolmates and exact some revenge. That’s when the cheerleading competitions — the real action that dominates the second act — takes over.
Setting the show’s ADHD vibe are the crisp and poppy tunes by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), with lyrics by Miranda and Amanda Greene (High Fidelity).The subjects are light and fluffy — songs are titled ”We Ain’t No Cheerleaders” and, shockingly, ”Bring it On.” While the numbers are energetic, none are particularly memorable. Some standouts include ”Killer Instinct,” the tirade by Campbell’s nemesis Eva (Elle McLemore) from her old squad, and ”Cross the Line,” a symbolic, rule-breaking number for Campbell and Danielle’s Jackson cheer squad.
Bring It On: The Musical may be ready for a national tour, but seems more like junior varsity when it comes to Broadway. Some of the characters are pompom-wielding clichés, from the feisty fat girl Bridget (Ryann Redmond) to the mouthy, bitchy friend Skylar (Kate Rockwell). There are some rough patches in the overlong production: an under-the-surface swirl of racial drama that never quite gels; a pretty unnecessary love story for Campbell; and rage-filled dream interludes that are ripped from the movie but don’t play so well on stage. And designer David Korins’ sparse set, dominated by four moving screens, also leaves much to be desired.
Still, the enthusiastic, acrobatic cast impressively manages to tumble, dance, and sing at the same time. Warren wins for her brassiness, Louderman for her range, and McLemore for her ability to transform from a weakling sophomore cheerleader to an insane diva of a cheer captain. A special nod goes to Gregory Haney, who plays the show-stopping drag queen cheerleader La Cienega, hilariously named after a major L.A. thoroughfare. When the buff, dress-wearing Haney is on stage, it’s impossible to take your eyes off him. Also delightful are the endless high-flying stunts, smart writing (”No cheerleading squad? What is the point of having a school?”), and killer costumes, designed by American Idiot‘s Andrea Lauer.
Since Legally Blonde‘s second national tour closed last May, the timing is perfect for another frothy girls-and-gays pop musical. Like that production, Bring It On: The Musical is true to its movie source and delivers a positive message about the power of friendship and acceptance. The show flashes its spirit with funny one-liners, some jazzy songs, and plenty of high school drama. Bring it on, indeed. B+