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Jeff

Monday, August 6, 2012

REVIEW: Bring It On: The Musical

Review of the Saturday, August 4, 2012 matinee performance at the St. James Theatre in New York City, NY.  Starring Taylor Louderman, Adrienne Warren, Jason Gotay, Elle McLemore, Ryann Redmond.  With Ariana DeBose, Gregory Haney, Neil Haskell, Janet Krupin, Kate Rockwell, Nicolas Womack.  Libretto by Jeff Whitty, music by Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, lyrics by Amanda Green and Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Cheer consultant Jessica Columbo.  Direction and choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler.  2 hours, 25 minutes including one intermission.

GRADE: A

 
I went into Bring It On: The Musical expecting very little other than to be blown away by the pyrotechnics of live competitive cheerleading caliber routines.  But my expectations were lower not for any of the reasons you might expect.  I have been disappointed ever since they announced that the show would have little to do with the film that bears the same name.  I have only seen the first film, but I enjoyed it a lot (and still do occasionally), and all because it is silly fun and still manages to have characters I care about.  After all, not everything that entertains also has to be deep with meaning and a cathartic resolution.  And given the pedigree of the creative team for the stage production, I guess I assumed that instead of silly fun and characters I care about, I'd get something a little deeper and fraught with meaning - exactly what I don't want from anything titled Bring It On that features cheerleaders on its logo.  Instead, I should have trusted that same pedigree to come up with something just right.  And, boy, did they.



Jeff Whitty has come up with a story that is both familiar (to anyone suffered any bit of angst during high school) and surprisingly compelling.  I should have known that the same guy who delivered so brilliantly when dealing with post-college depression in Avenue Q could do the same with the perils of navigating high school. Clearly, the book is relatable to people who are actually in high school.  The young lady sitting next to me verbalized several times: "Oh my God! We say the same thing!"  "Oh my God! That girl is just like xxx at school!" And she was even a little torn when the show dealt directly with cheer-politics: "Mom, they are making fun of cheerleaders!" Which segued into: "Wow. We really DO act like that."  And that is not to say that the adults are left out either.  The show never takes itself too seriously, and it verifies some things you can only know once you are decently far removed from high school: one, at the time everything seems life and death, but it really has little to do with life after high school; and two, even decades later, the words may change, they may Tweet when we used to tie up our parents' phones, but things aren't all that different today from when I was in high school.  It is to his credit that Mr. Whitty has written a libretto full of characters and situations that understands both the intensity of teenage emotion and the absurdity of it all at the same time.

The lyrics of Amanda Green and Lin-Manuel Miranda support Whitty's book perfectly.  In fact, I think it is notable that all of the words - spoken, sung or rapped - work seamlessly and in complete character in such a successful way that they achieve what most librettists and lyricists only aim for.  Granted, we aren't searching for deeper truths about the human condition or mounting a campaign for world peace here, but really nailing the vernacular of a generation (or two) removed from the writers in such a way that is never forced or even once feels phony or less than sincere is no easy task.  And the lyrics are very witty and catchy, with plenty of pop culture references (think about 17 year olds today, after all) to everything from iPads to Bristol Palin.  But the beauty here is that the songs and book aren't just pop culture references, there are healthy doses of genuine feeling, soul searching and a few lessons learned.  The latter, thank the Lord, are not delivered with even a hint of cheesy didactics or a whiff of smarmy After School Special platitudes.


And the musical theatre lover in me enjoyed immensely hearing two of today's brightest show composers use their distinctive voices to add to, develop and flesh out characters in a way that supports both the story and the themes of it.  Tom Kitt knows his way around an epiphany song, matching musical motifs and arrangements (he and Alex Lacamoire did the orchestrations) with characters and situations with an ear toward modern thinking in the 21st century, not unlike Rodgers and Hammerstein knew how to write for their era.  And given the dichotomy of the two worlds brought together in a culture clash as they are in Bring It On, there is no one today who can match the ability to bring the worlds of Broadway and hip-hop together better than Lin-Manuel Miranda.  His compositions are as musically unique as are the lyrics he provides ; no two of his songs sound the same, and yet they do.  And it was great fun to sit and think "that was a Tom Kitt number" and "ah, there's a song as fresh as anything in In the Heights!"  The Playbill doesn't enumerate who wrote what, but you can tell.  And there are even a few numbers that sound like glorious hybrids of both, which are perhaps the greatest evidence of the whole piece that this is one hell of a collaboration.

With Andy Blankenbuehler at the helm, the producers chose their captain very wisely.  His Broadway directorial debut hints at a long and distinguished career.  He treats the entire piece with an obvious respect and tenderness, allowing the "kids" to fully feel the heightened emotions of each scene, taking them all very seriously, while simultaneously remembering, like all of the adults in the audience, that high school felt big, but is just one stepping stone in a series.  And even more to his credit, he never lets the show take itself too seriously, nor does he ever let it go too over the top, either.  It's a fine line and he walks it like an expert.  Mechanically, he keeps things going at a fast pace - even the "stop and think" moments are brisk in pace.  The cast moves around the set pieces in such a way that they are a part of the action, choreographed as any one of the dance numbers would be.  And there are even some nicely symbolic staging moments and nods to other shows that made me tingle.  (One such moment is when the company advances down stage toward us, and as one, step over the boundary line on the gym floor. On a beat, they stop in a pose, then turn in slow motion and walk upstage as the back lighting fades out all together.  Future stagers of A Chorus Line take note.) It is also a pleasure to report that Mr. Blankenbuehler's choreography remains cutting edge and jaw-dropping, perhaps even topping his work in In the Heights.  And there is A LOT of dancing in this show  rendered by an exceptionally versatile and highly skilled ensemble.  There are some literally breath-taking moments, and still others that have you shaking your head in disbelief.

Oh, and the cheerleading sequences? Three letters: OMG!  Anyone who poo-poos this level of cheerleading as anything less than a sport (I used to be one of them) needs to see these routines for a reality check.  Seeing those basket tosses live - not to mention the gymnastic tumbling and perilously high pyramid formations - puts it in a whole different perspective than seeing it on ESPN2.  And don't get me started on how wrong people are about male cheerleaders.


Then there are the design elements, which are equally top notch.  David Korins delivers another set that represents the theme of the show and the needs of a swiftly changing story.  The set pieces are simple and characteristically multi-functional, and the overall design elements never let us forget that on and off the floor life for these kids is a big competition - not just for cheerleading, but for friendships, for trust, for respect and for finding oneself.  Chief among the design elements are the giant scoreboard-like projection screens which spin, come together and glide to all combinations of levels taking us everywhere from a gym scoreboard to a California beach, to a food court and to giant computer screens for video chatting.  The projections are cheeky and fun, designed by Jeff Sugg.  And the costumes, designed by Andrea Lauer, are also a hoot - again taking the characters seriously, but the story with a wink and nudge to the ribs - and given that there are a lot of uniforms, the variety is remarkable.  Kudos, to, to sound designer Brian Ronan, who allows us to hear every single word with out blasting our eardrums, while still being loud and exciting.  But the real technical star of this show is lighting designer Jason Lyons, who does with lights here, what the writers have done: combined wonderful theatrical lighting with cutting edge and thrilling designs to create the very real feel of competitive cheerleading.  Mr. Lyons has created a lighting canvas on par with any of today's brightest designers, including my personal favorite, Tony-winner Kevin Adams.

You would never know that out of the cast of 35, all but six are making their Broadway debuts.  They are a razor sharp, thoroughly engaging and extremely professional company.  Perhaps the only tell of their collective inexperience is their heart on their sleeve insistence at giving it all they have got.  Would that other shows currently on the boards had this much enthusiasm and moxie.  And the entire production is grounded by an ensemble of fearless actor-singer-dancer-athletes who are, to a person, true quadruple threats.  They carve out unique characters without saying a word.  And if I am ever in a position where I need to leap from a perilous height into waiting arms below, please let it be one of them to catch me.

Taylor Louderman and Kate Rockwell

It should come as absolutely no surprise that a show about high school kids is full of stereotypical characters.  But isn't that really the truth of  the high school experience?  Sure we all like to remember it that we were all unique, lost at sea trying to find ourselves.  And we were.  But so was everyone else, making us all alike within 3 or 4 groups, whether we like to admit it or not.  Both the writers of the book and lyric understand that, as well as the actors portraying the characters: they are all types that fit into a few cliques AND they are all unique individuals or learn to be, anyway.  And because of that awareness, the types presented are just gateways into much more interesting people than a musical about high school kids has any right to be.  The supporting characters are infinitely interesting, and you find yourself looking forward to their every arrival.  The upscale, snotty girls are very well represented by Kate Rockwell who, as deeply self-involved Skylar, is an absolute riot as the tell-it-like-it-is bitch with a sweet heart underneath, and by Janet Krupin as the dim, but not-stupid-by-a-long-shot Kylar.  Cheering is their life, but you never fear they will be left out of life after the gym and pompoms.  The uppity guy cheerleader is played like a piece of meat - vacuous but muscular - by the, um, Ken doll-like Neil Haskell, who spends just enough time shirtless and tumbling to make you forgive the character.

Ryann Redmond and Nicolas Womack

Gregory Haney

Jason Gotay

Ariana DeBose, Ryann Redmond and Gregory Haney

The other side of the tracks kids are played with cool urban swagger by Ariana DeBose, who as Nautica, reminds me of Jennifer Lopez when she was fresh and new and tabloid-free, and by Gregory Haney, who as transgender La Cienega, takes that type of character to new heights.  Angel in RENT would be so proud.  And so should we as a society.  Mr. Haney threatens to steal the show every time he is on the stage, but it is even more terrific that La Cienega exists without explanation or over dramatization.  She just is.  And how amazing that is.  Bravo to all concerned.  And their guys are played with suavity by Dominique Johnson, a giant of a guy who wants to be the next Michael Jordan; and in another scene-stealing turn, the effortlessly charming Nicolas Womack as Twig, a definite precursor to both Sonny and Usnavi from In the Heights.  Small in stature, but a giant in stage presence, keep your eye on Mr. Womack; he has a great future ahead of him.  The object of Twig's affections is Bridget, another fish out of water, transplanted to a new school, like the heroine of our story.  She is a larger girl, previously relegated to being the school mascot, but in her new surroundings is queen of the ball.  And she is played with heart-tugging sincerity and huge doses of good humor by the third scene-stealer of the show, Ryann Redmond, who would, in any other show probably be looking at a Tony nomination.  But we all know the fun shows are mostly looked over, and that is too bad.  Not to worry, though, because Ms. Redmond, like Mr. Haney and Mr. Womack, will have a huge career if their performances here are any indication.  Finally, Jason Gotay really delivers as the one truly unique, self-thinking person in the story.  He is terrific at putting on the shy, self-deprecating bookworm, while showing a certain uncertainty and teenage awkwardness.  He's the most grown up, but he isn't quite there yet - a hard role to pull off, and when done well, as it is here, it looks so easy.  It helps, too that he's a tall guy with a big smile, and comes off like kind of guy every girl will wish she had dated and every guy will wish he had made friends with.  Of course, he gets the girl in the end - that is never in question.  But Mr. Gotay makes the getting there all the sweeter.

Taylor Louderman and Elle McLemore

Every good high school drama - hell, every good drama period - has a great villain, and Bring It On has a doozy in Eva - the next generation's Eve Harrington (Surely you've seen All About Eve.  If not RENT IT!).  The ultimate manipulator/mean girl/class bitch is played by Kristin Chenoweth wannabe Elle McLemore, who dives into the role with both feet.  A small girl with larger than life delivery, Ms. McLemore fires on all cylinders here, a singing, acting, dancing dynamo that you just love to hate.  When she finally unravels, the payoff is huge and is literally a scream!  Add her name to the growing list of "new kids to watch."

Taylor Louderman and Adrienne Warren

And Wicked fans rejoice!  In a couple of years, the two leading ladies of Bring It On, will be more than ready to take their place in a long line of Elphabas and Glindas.  And if they are paired together, buy me a ticket.  I'm speaking of course of Adrienne Warren and Taylor Louderman, both of whom carry themselves with the maturity and skill of seasoned veterans.  Theirs is a relationship you expect in a show with this title - I understand all of the films feature some variation of an initial rivalry.  But what makes this so unique is that both actresses take their roles in surprising directions, even if their plot line isn't all that surprising.  It helps tremendously that both carve out interesting places and bits of humor, where if you just read the script you might not see the humor potential.  That shows a smarts that many an actress envies; both ladies have that intangible-but-you-know-it-when-you-see-it "IT" thing.  Either of them could (and probably will in the future) carry a show by themselves, but it is an embarrassment of riches to have them together.  And can they sing!  Wow!  Ms. Louderman delivers a powerful ballad in "One Perfect Moment," while Ms. Warren knocks it out of the park with "What Was I Thinking?"  And when they sing together...

Still, given that Bring It On's subject matter is high school cheerleading, and it clearly is not aiming for the same artistic high brow as Spring Awakening, I suspect that people who consider themselves "theatre aficionados" will stay away from this one like they did with a similarly themed Lysistrata Jones.  And I feel sorry for them, because, once again, they will be missing out on another seriously fun, excitingly rendered and wonderfully entertaining piece of musical theatre.  The first new musical of the season is already better than several from the past few seasons.  Bring It On is cheer-tastic and not to be missed.

(Production photos by Paul Aresu, Joan Marcus and Craig Schwartz)


Jeff
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