I don’t know how I’ve managed to do it for a major musical, but somehow I’ve avoided all the reviews and almost all word-of-mouth about Bring It On: The Musical, plus I didn’t really know anything about its source material or subject matter until I was in the theatre. That source material is a film comedy and the subject matter has to do with competing high school cheerleaders.
Highly unlikely material for me to be liking, but I found myself liking it a lot, not least because it proves the adage that treatment is everything. Whereas the hugely overrated (say I) Lysistrata Jones—the college basketball sex comedy thing which, despite ostensible differences, seemed to “play in a similar arena”—was obvious, attenuated, a little smarmy and ultimately exhausting, Bring It On manages to stay relatively fresh for both of its Acts. The trick to librettist Jeff Whitty’s book (“inspired by”—I don’t know how inspired by, but that official distinction seems a looser credit line than “based on”—a screenplay by Jessica Bendinger) is that once he introduces the archetypes—to cite only a few that we meet at the beginning: the good-girl ambitious cheerleader (Taylor Louderman); the conceited, self-absorbed cheerleader (Kate Rockwell); the fat girl wannabe cheerleader consigned to the mascot costume (Ryann Redmond), among many others—he wastes little or no time pulling reversals on our expectations: Either they’re more dimensional than the clichés their types suggest, and/or they’re thrown into unfamiliar, unexpected situations that force the archetypes to react or adapt in surprising ways. (I especially admired the treatment of one particular character played by Gregory Haney: a transvestite. He’s played, costumed and written to be just noticeable enough, but—and this is the incredible thing, especially given that this is a musical about high school students [and ultimately for them, I think, but I’ll get to that in due course]—no one comments on it. The character, named Danielle, makes her [?] own reference to it once, and at that it’s implied, but the otherwise tacit manner in which Danielle’s persuasion is presented speaks volumes. They trust that we know and don’t need to be told. That takes a tremendous amount of sophistication and confidence.)
The score, which mixes songs by composer Tom Kitt and lyricist Amanda Green with others by composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (and may include some cross-pollination) doesn’t go to places quite as new—it tends, quite properly, to park where the book has driven it—but the music is hip, attractive, and streetwise; while managing to be both theatrical and bereft of theatrical corn (by which I mean the ways in which a legit theatre discipline can “round off” or dilute a pure contemporary imprimatur). As to the lyrics: extreme purists may wince at some of the false rhyming, but (speaking as a stickler myself) there’s another kind of purity at work here; the false rhyming is, I believe, always contained within hip-hop and rap numbers and it’s always a little too pointed to be taken as lazy or slovenly or as anything but a most deliberately used device. They seem to exist by way of saying that near-rhymes, arch rhymes and mischievously bent rhymes are an integral part of the form’s vocabulary, and indeed—in the context of this show—there’s palpable joy to be taken in that particular type of verbal smackdown. It wouldn’t sound right if it were Sondheim-neat.
The direction by Andy Blankenbuehler is skillful enough in terms of how economically he tells the story and gets his terrific young cast—whose notable players also include (but aren’t limited to) Adrienne Warren, Jason Gotay, Elle McLemore and Ariana BeBose—to define their territory; but his choreography, which includes much high-flipping of girls, human pyramids and various other forms of stuff that should be impossible without cables and hydraulics, is often simply breathtaking…and I mean that literally.
Is Bring It On for all tastes? Probably not. There’s a sense in which it is what it is; you go with the flow or you don’t. I did. But I’m not altogether sure its producers expect that a traditional all-ages, mostly-adult Broadway audience will for very long…for at the moment, it’s advertised as having a strictly limited run. And there’s only one reason why a new, youthful musical this extravagant and (clearly) lovingly rendered would open with a fixed closing date: to give it Broadway cred before being made available to schools. Newsies opened at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey similarly—as a response to a generation of young audiences who had discovered the film on home video, and the advent of some school groups having staged their own unauthorized adaptations; its critical success and subsequent transfer to Broadway was an unexpected bonus. I think Bring It On, specifically or coincidentally, is following in its footsteps. And dance steps. Bring It On, it seems to me, isn’t about Broadway (even though it represents Broadway at its most skillful). At any rate, it’s not about Broadway as most of us think of it.
It’s about the new millennium uses to which Broadway can be put. And given how often Broadway is (sometimes with justification) painted as a dinosaur refusing to go gentle into that good night, that’s not such a bad thing. She may have some life in her yet.
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