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8/1/12

Bring It On - Well, That was Unexpectedly Awesome

It's about time!

Seriously, it feels like it has been years since the last time I was genuinely excited and overjoyed to be in the audience of a new musical. Not that there has not been some amazing stuff (The Book of MormonOnce) or even some passable faire (Lysistrata JonesNewsies), but there was a time when Broadway was overrun with smash-hit after smash-hit and the Tonys were not scrambling to fill the ballot, let alone dish out Best New Musical Awards by default.

And of all the things that could have possibly wowed me, it is Bring It On, now open at the St. James Theater. Based on one of the most quotable movies EVER (even though the plot echoes one of its subsequent straight-to-DVD releases), the show evokes a good humor, a wow factor and a charm that makes for a crowd-pleaser with a slick polish and style...an overall presentation that makes me think that this is the future of Broadway.

You know...nothing
to see here.
Plot-wise...well, saying that it is simple is an understatement. Campbell is the captain of her cheerleading squad. She's forced to switch schools. She meets resistance and doesn't fit in. Over time, she starts earning approval of her newfound peers and creates her own squad to compete at Nationals. Done, finished, moving on...

If there is one thing that musicals like RentSpring AwakeningNext to Normal or even American Idiot have accomplished, it is this: a show that is tailored more to a younger audience in themes, plot and score and can deliver on that. The ones that would go on to be classics, Rent and Spring Awakening mostly, achieved the unique feat of also appealing to adults, even if their familiarity to the context is more abridged.

Bring It On does not quite earn that superlative of "classic in the making" - the show itself practically sprouted from the mind of a 16-year-old-girl on her two cellphones - but I can imagine a mature theater-going audience would get a kick out of it as well. From the impeccable use of mobile monitors projecting the walls of bedrooms/hallways, computer images or webcam chats, coupled with KICKASS cheerleading sequences to the max, the modernized approach in the direction and staging are clever, but are moreso a deliberate attempt to connect with the theatergoers checking Twitter at intermission. Yes, the show is proud of itself for being so hip and trendy - viral YouTube videos, Doctor Who mentions and all - but c'mon; aren't we all a little tired of those nostalgic musicals that have run rampant for far too long?

Not to place it on an unreachable pedestal of fab, Bring It On does have it issues. Yes, plenty of them. It is predictable, far too referential, dated (plot-wise speaking, but to be fair, that was to be expected) and contains plot contrivances and holes galore. It also takes itself a little too seriously at times and has a complete lack of subtlety when doling out lessons and words of wisdom (ugh). You know what else...Campbell is given, like, five "I'm going to sing my feels" ballads to the audience in the first 30 minutes...what, did they think we I was not going to notice?

But, you know what? Why bother. The show is virtually immune to all criticisms as I was sitting in my seat, laughing my face off at the witty one-liners, being giddy at all the well-executed musical numbers and sitting there in awe at the demanding choreography. You really begin to forgive the show's apparent flaws because its highlights are homeruns and far surpass any drawbacks, if the drawbacks even register at all.

We'll get to the score in a second...but how about that choreography? When this ensemble is being tossed into the air and being thrown over people during the cheer sequences (not exaggerating even a little bit), you can't help but wonder, "how the HELL do they do this eight times a week?" There was a little fright in me that someone was going to fly through the air, only to fall on her ass (don't look at me like that; it could happen *cough* Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark). I was burning calories just watching them. Again, the explosive, ambitious choreography looks like a deliberate attempt to push the envelope and wow a modern, demanding audience wanting value out of every dollar they spend. As a modern, demanding patron, with the bonus of extra bitchy blogging, I can appreciate that approach.

But the score, lovelies...oh, the score. Tom Kitt could run over a cat with his car and it would sound like heaven. Paired up with Amanda Green and Lin Manuel Miranda (yes, that dude from In the Heights), the score achieves the distinction of being so transparent of the composers individual styles. But, instead of merging their disparate styles on each track, it is like they rotate in and out...a decision that pays off in spades. You can tell immediately which ones are more heavily influenced by which composer; the pop/rock anthems from Kitt and the urban, R&B, hip-hop from Miranda. Obviously, Kitt's music is my favorite (a personal aesthetic thing), but I was amazed that they still wound up with a cohesive score that reflects the book pretty accurately.

What I also appreciate is a young, fun cast BRINGING it like there is no tomorrow. Not a weak one in the bunch with everyone having a standout moment or four. Taylor Louderman, as Campbell, had the dreaded responsibility of carrying the emotional arch of the show and playing the flawed protagonist (translation: playing the 'kind-of' interesting, albeit, least fun character), but she pulled it off. I mentioned that she gets a ballad or three too many (and too soon), but when she is belting out "What I Was Born to Do," the fantastic "One Perfect Moment" or the show's stunner of a title number, she is very assured and poised. Adrienne Warren, playing Danielle, the inner-city leader of a dance troupe who joins up with Campbell, brought sass and vocals for days. Ryann Redmond's Bridget, who transfers schools along with Campbell only to adjust and make friends more easily, plays the nerdy, outcast schtick for both hilarious effect and pathos, right into the audience's heartstrings. She was the fan favorite character, for sure.

Oh, Tranny. The sass.
Too much. It hurts.
Kate Rockwell, channeling a Rachel McAdams circa Mean Girls look and persona, was HYSTERICAL as Skylar, a ditzy, blonde cheerleader on Campbell's former squad, spouting off awesome one-liners that made my daily roticon (My favorite? "I am so upset, I actually might eat something"). Elle McLemore plays the petite, cartoonish, over-the-top, conniving evil whore Eva (complete with her own evil whore number called "Killer Instinct," an "I Am What I Am," but more evil). Gregory Haney, playing the transgendered La Cienega, upped the camp and not-too-serious factor of the show with a blink of his eyelashes and a swing of his finger and/or pelvis. Obviously, I loved him and want to hit up the outlets with him...her...him/her. Neil Haskell, a So You Think You Can Dance alumnus, was adorbs playing a cutesy, puppy love interest and being shirtless at a point...which is always welcome and relevant, natch.

And in the "did you know...?" department, the cheer competition numbers at the end feature the amazing vocals of Alysha Umphress and Joshua Henry. If it weren't for my reading of the Playbill beforehand, I would have never have guessed that. Talk about Broadway cameos for the ages, if such a thing exists...

I can't resist it, y'all...it was too darn entertaining, funny and accomplished from a technical standpoint to ignore. Regardless of what standards I maintain, it is, undeniably, a quality production. Further more, it is a step in the right direction as new musicals try to rehabilitate their own genre. Say what you will about some of its 'lacking' elements, but this show embodies the essence of what we will be seeing a lot more of in the future and I consider it a success for both what it is and what it represents. When I was cheering along with Kirsten Dunst, Gabrielle Union and Eliza Dushku some twelve years ago ("Be Aggressive...B-E Aggressive!") never did I think that a Broadway incarnation would ever come about, let alone be something worth cheering about.

Pun intended.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus for Bring It On: The Musical

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