LA/National Tour Theater Review: BRING IT ON: THE MUSICAL (Ahmanson Theatre)

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by Sarah Taylor Ellis on November 15, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

PREPPY IS THE NEW SUBVERSIVE

When the development of Bring It On: The Musical was announced, I rolled my eyes. The commercial viability of yet another mediocre movie-to-musical had lured Tony Award-winning talent from three refreshingly original musicals: In the Heights, Next to Normal, and Avenue Q. I doubted whether director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, librettist Jeff Whitty, composers Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and lyricists Miranda and Amanda Green could work those spirit fingers to turn a four-film franchise about competitive cheerleading into musical gold.

Bring It On: The Musical at the Ahmanson Theatre – Los Angeles/National Tour Theater Review by Sarah Taylor EllisBut opening night of Bring It On: The Musical, kicking off its national tour at the Ahmanson Theater, made me do a double take. This jawdropping spectacle with a heart is a new musical worth cheering about.

Jeff Whitty’s witty book tunes in to something undeniably unusual about the Bring It On franchise. Although the first film was released as a mainstream teen comedy in 2000, Bring It On also garnered a campy cult following. This strange simultaneity of mainstream success and cult status, popularity and marginality, propels the freely-inspired stage show to unexpected heights. Bring It On: The Musical is a fresh take on high school experiences of marginalization and the possibility of expanding the confining borders of the mainstream.

Bring It On: The Musical at the Ahmanson Theatre – Los Angeles/National Tour Theater Review by Sarah Taylor EllisHigh school cheerleader Campbell (quadruple threat Taylor Louderman, who does her own high-flying cheer stunts in addition to singing, dancing, and acting her ass off) has dreamed of being captain of her cheerleading squad at preppy Truman High since age 5. But when the local schools are redistricted, Campbell winds up at inner-city Jackson, which doesn’t even have a squad. In a sea of racially diverse students with urban flare, this little white rich girl stands out like a sore thumb. She gradually works her way into Jackson’s dance crew, led by Danielle (the fierce and fiery Adrienne Warren). Before long, Campbell has convinced Jackson’s hip-hoppers to form their own competitive cheerleading squad and take their talent to nationals, where they will face off with her former Truman cheerleaders.

Bring It On: The Musical at the Ahmanson Theatre – Los Angeles/National Tour Theater Review by Sarah Taylor EllisYet the real heart of the show is neither Campbell nor Danielle, but funny friend Bridget (the ebullient Ryann Redmond). This chubby outsider lives on the sidelines at Campbell High, persevering as an unpopular parrot mascot for three years. When Bridget is also redistricted, this chic geek instantly fits into the dance crew of outsiders at Jackson; she then helps Campbell navigate this dynamic and diverse world. Although most of cheerleaders in Bring It On are caricatures, the hilarious and endearing Bridget – as well as the fabulous, scene-stealing tranny La Cienega (Gregory Haney) – embody the true spirit of this musical.

Bring It On: The Musical at the Ahmanson Theatre – Los Angeles/National Tour Theater Review by Sarah Taylor EllisThis is not to suggest that Bring It On is a flawless production. Whitty’s story is smart and playfully self-conscious, especially when dealing with issues of race, but the delightfully silly narrative still needs a great deal of streamlining. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s and Amanda Green’s lyrics rarely sparkle with the wit of which they are capable, and they often undermine sentimental ballads with punchy one-liners. The stage design is clean and clear for musical numbers, but projections on four suspended monitors often overwhelm the actors during scenes.

Bring It On: The Musical at the Ahmanson Theatre – Los Angeles/National Tour Theater Review by Sarah Taylor EllisFortunately, the music helps the show keep pace. The difference between Truman High and Jackson High manifests itself sonically in pop-rock (presumably Tom Kitt) and hip-hop (Lin-Manuel Miranda). For much of the show, these two styles remain distinct, but by the cheerleading competition at the show’s end, a pulsing electronic rock hybridizes the genres in the infectious and high-flying “Cross the Line.” (An auto-tuned voice might just make you question the show’s message about originality and individuality, though.… )

The intersection of Kitt and Miranda is palpable not only in musical styles, but in characters: Campbell’s love interest Randall is essentially Henry from Next to Normal, while Bridget’s love interest Twig is the cute sidekick Sonny from In the Heights. Such nods to the creative team’s past work are part of Bring It On’s delightfully geeky references, from A Chorus Line to Doctor Who. And, as in Wicked, the romantic plots of Bring It On are secondary to the sustaining bonds of friendship.

Bring It On: The Musical at the Ahmanson Theatre – Los Angeles/National Tour Theater Review by Sarah Taylor EllisThe sheer passion and talent of this musical’s youthful ensemble soars with Andy Blankenbuehler’s dynamic direction and choreography. Blankenbuehler is aligned with the groundbreaking storytelling traditions of musical choreographers like Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Michael Bennett, and Bob Fosse. In Bring It On’s numerous production numbers, his hybrid dance stylings fuse hip-hop to high-flying, awe-inspiring cheer stunts. In close coordination with Jason Lyon’s stunning lighting design, Blankenbuehler employs quick tumbling passes or fluid flows of the ensemble to effect seamless cinematic transitions between scenes.

Bring It On: The Musical at the Ahmanson Theatre – Los Angeles/National Tour Theater Review by Sarah Taylor EllisAbove all, Blankenbuehler is a master manipulator of time, incorporating choreographic suspensions that amplify the meaning of a moment. In the stellar Act II opener “It’s All Happening,” for instance, Blankenbuehler’s choreography freezes the background movement of students at their lockers for a brief lyric, drawing the audience’s entire attention to Danielle as she imagines her dance-crew-turned-cheer-squad winning nationals. Bring It On: The Musical at the Ahmanson Theatre – Los Angeles/National Tour Theater Review by Sarah Taylor EllisThis subtle suspension of time grants a breathtaking clarity and luminosity to Danielle’s dream in that moment.

After all, this is what high school should be about: luminous dreams that we can only achieve by testing our boundaries. How do we know who we are until we cross the line? The stylistically-diverse, freely-adapted musical is a tribute to high school as a space of vibrant possibility rather than rigid conformity. And although the show still has some maturing to do, the possibilities of Bring It On: The Musical make me beam.

photos by Craig Schwartz

Bring It On: The Musical
Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles
scheduled to end in LA on December 10
for tickets, visit http://www.centertheatregroup.org/

then continues touring throughout the United States (+ Toronto)
through June 3, 2012
for cities, dates, and tickets, visit http://www.bringitonmusical.com/

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