Perhaps because the summer Olympics were in full swing during the time I attended “Bring It On: The Musical,” the audience responded with almost deafening cheers and screams of delight to the admittedly thrilling acrobatic cheerleading routines that comprise the best parts of this new musical. Or perhaps it was that 80 percent of the audience, mostly teenaged girls and moms by my scan, were making some very real and visceral connections to the ever more demanding and more athletically directed phenomenon known as cheerleading within our schools and universities.
What could be a more exciting plot device than to see how an undaunted cheerleading captain Campbell (Taylor Louderman) attempts to bring an underdog squad to qualify competitively against all the odds? It may be the cliche of all cliches, but you have to give it up for director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and his equally world-class collaborators Jeff Whitty (libretto), Tom Kitt & Lin-Manuel Miranda (music and lyrics), and co-lyricist Amanda Green for their combined efforts in turning the 2000 film into an amusing and rousing bit of summer (and possibly beyond) fun.
Campbell is distraught when a redistricting ordinance forces her to move from Truman High School in her white-bread suburb to an urban, ethnically diverse neighborhood and enroll in Jackson High School where the hip-hop culture and individuality are more respected than conformity and cheerleading. It takes a bit of doing, mostly singing, for the pretty, trim, and agile blonde (Louderman is all this and sings well) to integrate and become accepted by the wary students — particularly by Danielle (Adrienne Warren), the attractive, very protective leader of a crew of spirited but also fierce hip-hop dancers. The persuasive Campbell convinces Danielle that together they can turn the dancers into a competitive squad.
Along for the fun is Bridgett (Ryann Redmond), Campbell’s chubby friend and former team mascot who has also been transferred. Redmond gives a wonderfully engaging performance as the outsider who becomes one of the team.
The redistricting has given the ambitious, scheming cheerleader Eva (a beguilingly bedeviled Elle McLemore) her chance to not only betray Campbell by taking over the leadership of the squad at Truman High School but also by stealing Campbell’s insincere boyfriend (fine work by Neil Haskell). As for scene stealing, the prize goes to Gregory Haney, as the confident and, of course, sassy transgender member of the Jackson High squad. Jason Gotay is excellent as the young Jackson High composer, the young man destined to win Campbell’s heart.
What is admirable and most enjoyable about Whitty’s libretto is its lack of condescension, even as it pokes fun at the traits and tribulations of its principal characters. Not pressed to be as sharp as he was with his book for “Avenue Q,” Whitty nevertheless doesn’t let this clash of stereotypes become an obstacle for wit. Instead, one can perceive that the formulaic plot that keeps “Bring It On” moving is fertile ground for his subtly subversive sense of humor.
Kitt, who had a real breakthrough with his exciting score for “Next to Normal” has partnered commendably with the also gifted Miranda (“In the Heights”) and with co-lyricist Green (the underappreciated “High Fidelity”) to write 20 or so songs that essentially define a current musical trend that stipulates that a melody need not linger on but lasts only as long as it takes a singer to finish it.
The personal dramas, such as they are, are purposefully constructed as bridges between Blankenbuehler’s dynamic routines. They do a grand job of reflecting Truman High School’s more traditional approach against Jackson’s more unorthodox hip-hop style, as displayed both during training and at the regional and national playoffs. They are made more thrilling by an increasing number of stunning airborne stunts. During these, cheerleaders are tossed twisting almost into the rafters before returning safely into the arms of the brawny male squad, who bear most of the weight as human pyramids and as gymnasts. The unusually large company includes 13 of the nation’s most skilled competitive cheerleaders.
Praise is also due to the agility of designer David Korins’ unit setting, its clever use of four large video screens (with designs by Jeff Sugg), Andrea Lauer’s snappy costumes, and the sparkling lighting by Jason Lyons. Following its premiere at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta, this show embarked on a 13 cities tour that preceded this limited Broadway engagement. That’s a helluva tryout for any show. If the principal goal of this musical was to have a young and awesomely talented company “Bring It On,” then they have done it in spectacular fashion. ***
Bring It On: The Musical, St. James Theater, 246 West 44th Street. Through October 7. $32 to $199. Call 212-239-6200.