I thought I had left high school behind me. I graduated many years ago and didn’t go to the most recent reunion of my graduating class. But watching Bring It On, the new musical currently playing at the St. James Theater while on its national tour, took me back to many of my high school memories — only these ones were more loud, bright and athletic than mine were.
Inspired by the 2000 movie of the same name, Bring It On delves into the scandals and scheming of high school cheerleaders vying for a national championship. Campbell, the (almost literally) golden girl played in a charming performance by Taylor Louderman, has just been named captain of her cheerleading squad when she finds herself redistricted to the rougher, tougher and more diverse Jackson High. Lonely and out of place when forced to attend a school without cheerleaders, Campbell finds herself on a Journey of Self Discovery where she learns that There is More to People Than Just Their Appearances. Some feelings are hurt, some lessons are learned and some new relationships are formed, but the story is so by-the-numbers that the meaning behind it is substantially lessened.
It is true that the enjoyment of Bring It On does not merely come from the story. The unique aspect of this production is the incredible athleticism of the cast, who perform hip-hop and dance moves as well as stunning cheerleading routines that seem to borrow from the musical Wicked by defying gravity.
While impressive, the choreography and cheerleading are not the only enjoyable aspects of Bring It On. The script does have some very witty moments — mainly at the expense of a few characters’ intelligence — and it does poke fun at itself frequently. The book, by Jeff Whitty, is cleverly satirical at times, but other times the intended sincerity of a character learning a lesson drowns out the snarky wit lurking beneath the surface. But the lack of actual characters rather than mere high school stereotypes costs the show much of its intended heart.
Louderman’s Campbell is pretty and nice, but extremely one-dimensional. When she learns that her being redistricted was part of a scheming plot by her younger neighbor Eva, she is determined to get revenge through — what else? — winning the national cheerleading championship. While I appreciated the All About Eve-type plotting and McLemore does a great impression of Kristin Chenoweth, Campbell’s rage seems more like obsession and I was never once actually concerned about her temper. I liked her the most when she was costumed as her school’s mascot (an oversized leprechaun) and joined the dance team for an over-the-top routine. Joining Campbell and Eva on the squad is beautiful mean-girl Skylar, played by Kate Rockwell who is clearly having a great time playing a dumb blonde. (She brought down the house when she exclaimed, “I’m so upset, I’m actually going to eat something!”) The best member of this posse is Bridget (an excellent Ryann Redmond), the sassy, silly and — of course — overweight girl who covers up her self-esteem problems by acting extra over-the-top. Redmond has a great voice, which she finally gets to show off in the Act Two number “Ain’t No Thing,” where her new friends encourage her to be more confident.
At Jackson High, the leader of the pack is Danielle, played by Adrienne Warren. Warren is an impressive dancer but a severe over-actor, who delivers every line as if it were the punchline of a joke. She is joined by her own set of sidekicks, including Gregory Haney as the drag queen La Cienega (who smoothly steals every scene he is in). After Campbell recruits Danielle and her dance team to compete at the national championships, the Lessons of Friendship and Understanding are learned, as well as a sidebar of a love story for Danielle that feels as if it were thrown in at the last minute because someone forgot to include it before.
The inconsistency in Bring It On is surprising, given the high-caliber creative team behind the scenes. The music was composed by Tom Kitt, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Next to Normal and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who won a Tony Award for In the Heights the lyrics were written by Amanda Green, the daughter of the famed Adolph Green. The impressive choreography is credited to Andy Blankenbuehler, who also directed the show. And there are several numbers that are both good and fun to watch, especially “Cross the Line,” which the Jackson cheerleaders perform at the national championship competition.
I didn’t expect to hear the word “feminist” spoken onstage at Bring It On, but I did when a male student at Jackson, pondering whether to join the cheerleading squad, rapped, “Ya think cheerin’ is feminine?/Then I’m a feminist/Swimmin’-in-women, gentleman!” But Bring It On clearly had the intention of a feminist message of collaboration and friendship between women. Campbell and Danielle, both used to being on top in their social circles, learn to put their egos aside and trust each other, and this trust eventually grows in to friendship. This is all articulated in the song, “It’s Not Over,” during which Danielle admits how much she actually likes Campbell. I was slightly puzzled, as I did not actually see this friendship develop onstage and the rapport between Louderman and Warren was severely lacking. But the message is still well-intentioned and important for the target audience of tween and teenage girls to hear.
And while it was clear that the other Important Message of Bring It On is that that Winning Isn’t Everything, this message was not clearly portrayed either. But it is clear that Bring It On is not striving to be the next Follies or Clybourne Park. It is not meant to be an in-depth emotional journey at the theater. It is bright, loud and, despite my criticisms, I will admit, pretty fun to watch. As Rockwell says near the conclusion of the show, “Omigod, everyone’s gone through all this, like, personal growth, but I’m exactly the same person I was a year ago… ” After pausing, she flashes a large grin and adds, “Oh well! I like myself. Always did.” The same could be said of Bring It On.