Chicago Theater Review: BRING IT ON: THE MUSICAL (Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago)

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by Dan Zeff on March 8, 2012

in Theater-Chicago

THE BOOK ISN’T READY, BUT BRING IT ON ANYWAY

Bring It On at the Cadillac Palace Theatre is cut from the Legally Blonde cloth of contemporary musical theater: they are both inspired by motion pictures (Bring It On spun off into five movies from 2000 to 2009), and feature a lithe young blonde heroine, a ditsy plot, and a talented youthful ensemble with unlimited enthusiasm and energy romping through some terrific dance routines. Both shows are a hoot, but while Legally Blonde is an established Broadway hit now enjoying a first class revival at the Marriott Theatre, Bring It On is in a state of development as it works its way to New York City, and can only get better if some rough spots in the book get smoothed out.

Bring It On is about the culture of cheerleading at American high schools. If the show is a reflection of prep reality, cheerleading is a semi-religion among its mostly female practitioners, much like sports is among the guys.  The top cheerleader at Truman High School is Campbell Davis (Taylor Louderman). She’s all set to lead her squad to national glory when she learns that through a sudden and dubious redistricting decision, she’s been excised out of the Truman high district and into the Johnson High School district. Truman is an upscale suburban-type school. Johnson is inner city. How two such different types of schools could exist virtually side-by-side is just one of the narrative puzzlements the viewer must accept.

At first, Campbell struggles to fit into the Johnson High mostly African American social stream. The student body even includes an unapologetically transvestite student named La Cienega and a lad who expresses himself in hip-hop. Eventually Campbell convinces the students to organize into a cheerleading squad to challenge the supremacy of the smug Truman High bunch, leading to a dance shootout that ends the show.

The narrative shifts gears from the cult of cheerleading that opens the show through the exploration of class conflict between the two high schools, touching on teenage problems of fitting in, racial prejudice, and friendship. But nobody should attend the show for its social uplift. This peppy production is a singing and dancing extravaganza that will be especially exhilarating for young female viewers (there were numerous school cheerleading jackets among the spectators on opening night). This isn’t exactly the stage equivalent of chic lit. The talent and exuberance that flows from the stage transcends gender, but no question the young ladies in the audience were reacting with particular squeals of pleasure.

The artistic brain trust for Bring It On has major street cred when it comes to this kind of youth-oriented, rock music-dominated, high-motor entertainment. Tom Kitt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Amanda Green, and Jeff Whitty cumulatively have figured in such recent Broadway successes as Avenue Q, In the Heights, High Fidelity and Next to Normal. They have assembled a cast that not only looks and acts like high school students, but students ones who can sing and dance and toss off daring gymnastics stunts like Olympians.

Louderman is a wonder as Campbell. She’s on stage nearly the entire show, acting and belting out one song after another while throwing herself into a glorious series of high velocity dances. Her stamina level is off the charts and she seemed to be having the time of her life, like the rest of the ensemble. The unforced high spirits of the ensemble is not the least of the evening’s joys.

The production still needs to work out some kinks. The first act moves too slowly between musical numbers. Campbell’s difficulties in making friends at her new school occupy endless nonmusical minutes in the first act, a scene that urgently needs to be compressed, enlivened, or both. The production also is overproduced in spots, with video sequences that distract as much as they inform. And what’s with the blinding spotlights? Every rock-tinged show these days feels it has to scald the audience’s eyeballs with searing lighting flashes (by Jason Lyons). Overall, the show could reduce its electronic special effects by half and lose nothing in visual impact. The flamboyant design is by David Korins (set), Jason Lyons (sound), Andrea Lauer (the gaudy costumes), and Brian Ronan (sound), yet the cast doesn’t need the help. Their energy lights up the stage enough.

As Danielle, Campbell’s black counterpart at Johnson High, Adrienne Warren displays great singing chops and plenty of attitude. I even caught a whiff of the “Crispin’s Day” speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V as Danielle rouses the Johnson students to meet the challenge from Truman. Elle McLemore plays Eva, the show’s villain, but McLemore is so petite and so cute she has trouble selling herself as the story’s nasty. But she can sing and dance with the best of them. Ryann Redmond plays Campbell’s chubby sidekick, a standard low comedy role until Redmond pounds out some impressive vocal ballads in the second act.

The pit band is mostly electronic keyboards and percussion and the musicians romp and stomp through the Kitt-Miranda score with an appropriately potent decibel count (highest props to Alex Lacamoire for his dance arrangements). As it stands now, Bring It On (abetted by Andy Blankenbuehler’s high-flying choreography and direction) is a certified crowd pleaser, especially for the teen-age clientele. The book will never be the show’s strong point, but it can be improved, maybe with a little less commitment to touchy-feely explorations of racial and class conflicts. Definitely the first act needs brightening. But the cast deserves a hit and it’s just a matter of time before Louderman gets a star on her dressing room door.

photos by Craig Schwartz

Bring It On
Cadillac Palace Theatre in Chicago
scheduled to end on March 25
for tickets, visit http://broadwayinchicago.com

and continuing on tour
scheduled to end on June 3
for tour dates and tickets, visit http://www.bringitonmusical.com

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

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