Spirit but no soul in loud Bring It On musical

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CHEER UP AND SING OUT! The company of Bring It On, a mediocre new musical based on the movie of the same name. Photo by Michael Lamont. Below: Adrienne Warren as Danielle is the best thing about Bring It On: The Musical. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Like a weak episode of “Glee” shot up with steriods and stuffed full of anti-depressants, Bring It On: The Musical sends up a rousing cheer for the robotic vapidity of the new Broadway. The real shame about this overblown movie-to-stage adaptation is that it’s chock full of appealing, talented and boundlessly energetic young performers, but their sparkling humanity is mostly lost in the non-stop machine of this depressingly mechanical, surprisingly shrill effort (a part of the SHN season).

Targeted to an age range of teens to twentysomethings who slavishly recite lines from the 2000 movie starring Kirsten Dunst as a beleaguered cheerleading squad captain, this musical has a startling pedigree: direction and choreography by Tony-winner Andy Blankenbuehler (In the Heights), book by Tony Award-winner Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q and the lamentable Tales of the City) and music by Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winner Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and Tony-winner Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), who also co-wrote the lyrics with Amanda Green (High Fidelity). You’d think among this heavily lauded crowd of artists that someone could have located a little heart or a moment of actual human connection. But no. This is musical by committee, and a strenuous effort it seems to have been.

It’s all as highly programmed as the four giant video screens floating around the stage and pretending to be a set and only slightly more interesting.

Whitty’s book diverges almost completely from the movie, settling instead for a watered down All About Eve re-tread that sends cute, blond Campbell (Taylor Louderman) from the comfort of her cheer-happy suburban high school into an inner-city school where there are metal detectors, hip kids of color and – gasp – no cheerleaders. Everybody learns to respect and love everybody even amid the tension of a national cheer competition. It all ends, quite literally, in a multicultural group hug.

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Nothing rises above the cartoon level here, which would be fine if the cartoon were fun. But there’s a pall of sameness over the whole enterprise. The stage, loaded with lighting grids and those annoying floating screens, looks more pop concert than musical theater, and it is cold, cold, cold. There’s absolutely no texture to this show at all, and that’s part of the overriding problem. The machine spins with super efficiency but never gains any traction – there’s no feeling other than brash cheerfulness and occasional flashes of bitchiness.

The Kitt-Miranda score is blandly funky, if that’s even possible. It’s pleasant enough in the theater (and certainly LOUD enough) but immediately forgettable. Miranda previously took us to hip musical theater heights, but here it’s mostly lows. There aren’t any song titles in the program (other than for the pre-recorded songs played during the actual cheer routines), and that seems fitting because they all blur together anyway. The voices all blare effectively but with no discernible emotion.

Same is true for the choreography, all very proficiently performed but just empty movement. The cheer routines are spectacular, especially at first. This could easily be called Back Flip: The Musical because that’s the go-to make-’em-squeal move. The first few times women are thrown into the air, spinning madly, it’s thrilling. But soon, as the old song says, the thrill is gone. The moves are just performed over and over with no attempt to let us into the process, see the routines being built or getting a sense of the danger involved. Are the people being flipped ever scared? Are the people who catch them ever afraid of missing?

Whatever, the moves were executed flawlessly at Wednesday’s opening-night performance at the Orpheum Theatre, and it got old. Fast.

Say this for the actors: they’re in extraordinary shape and they work their butts off trying to make this material work. The best thing about the show is Adrienne Warren’s appealing, vocally assured performance as Danielle, the de facto queen of Jackson High and leader of a hip-hop crew. Louderman’s Campbell is appealing as well but overwhelmed by the mechanics of the show. Ryann Redmond has the unenviable job of playing Bridget, the fat girl relegated to school mascot until she changes schools and becomes the object of much affection. Redmond is sweet and funny, but her character’s empowerment lesson feels like an unsuccessful attempt to break out of stereotype. Gregory Haney shows real flash as teen drag queen La Cienega but has precious little do other than strike sassy poses and look fabulous.

Forget about back stories or context or remotely real-life high school issues like homework, parents, sex or actually cheering for athletic events. This is all slick surfaces where nothing sticks. It’s definitely a problem when you leave a new musical humming video screens and back flips.

[bonus video]
To give you a sense of what the show looks and sounds like. Loud and flashy.

Bring It On: The Musical continues through Jan. 7 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $31 to $100. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Telling Tales and making them sing

Extended through July 31!
“Mouse”-keteers: Friends from 28 Barbary Lane include (from left) Patrick Lane as Brian Hawkins, Betsy Wolfe as Mary Ann Singleton, Wesley Taylor as Michael “Mouse” Tolliver and Josh Breckenridge as Dr. Jon Fielding in ACT’s world-premiere musical Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. Below: Mary Birdsong is Mona Ramsey and Taylor’s Mouse strikes a disco pose. Photos by Kevin Berne

There’s a beautiful line of dialogue that perfectly encapsulates the denouement of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, a tricky new musical having its world premiere at American Conservatory Theater. Toward the end of the nearly three-hour show, one character comforts another with: “Mystery solved. Mystery loved.”

In those two short lines we get what Tales of the City, whether in novel, miniseries or musical form, is all about: acceptance and love. It’s interesting to note that in the musical, this line is spoken not sung. That’s telling. But more on that in a minute.

Turning Armistead Maupin’s beloved Tales, which first saw life in 1976 as a novel serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle, is a no brainer. It’s amazing it’s taken this long for Mrs. Madrigal, Mona, Mouse and Mary Ann to start singing.

It took librettist Jeff Whitty of Avenue Q fame to get the ball seriously rolling, and then he teamed up with director Jason Moore, choreographer Larry Keigwin and composers Jake Shears and John Garden of pop-glam-rock group Scissor Sisters.

Of course the show had to begin life in San Francisco, and like the city that both inspires and hosts it, this Tales of the City has its ups and downs.

The actors bringing life to these familiar characters are uniformly solid, from the leads right down to the quirky character parts (drag queens, leather daddies, A-gays, hippies, etc.). They all have their musical chops. They’re all appealing and adorable, but what’s even better is that they’re all good actors.

The biggest strength of the show at this point is Whitty’s libretto. He has distilled Tales of the City and parts of its sequel, More Tales of the City into a streamlined show that retains a surprising amount of detail and an abundance of humor. The show is, like the books, overstuffed, and that’s as it should be. In fact, it could be even quirkier and weirder and grittier and raunchier. And sweeter.


Act 1 is slow going, as far as plot and character are concerned, but in Act 2, especially with the arrival of Diane J. Findlay as Mother Mucca, the gears are turning nicely. We get humor, melodrama and genuine emotion in equal measure, and that’s the key to this show.

Moore’s direction is mechanical and slick. In many ways, Douglas W. Schmidt’s scaffolding set directs the show more than Moore does. But sleek and slick doesn’t make this show work. Sure, the actors are hustled on and off efficiently, and we get speedy set changes, but the overall effect is cold when it should be warm. Beaver Bauer’s wonderful costumes – all rich patterns laced with humor and a groovy ‘70s vibe — go a long way toward warming up the look of the stage, but costumes can only do so much in the shadow of giant venetian blinds.

For this show to make its mark beyond San Francisco – clearly everybody involved is training sights on Broadway at some point – it can’t be the slickest or fanciest show around, but it does have be the gold standard for heart and humor.

In Act 2, when Wesley Taylor as Michael “Mouse” Tolliver sings a coming-out letter to his mother, the artifice breaks and reality comes peeking in. For the first time in the show, the music is absolutely necessary to the storytelling, and when the song is reprised during a key moment near the show’s end, the effect resonates powerfully.

The rest of Shears and Garden’s score ranges from catchy and enjoyable to outright awful (“Where Beauty Lies” is cringe-inducing). Their musical palette in Act 2 is far more interesting than Act 1. We get a raunchy show-stopper performed by Winnemucca whores (“Ride ‘em Hard”), a too-brief Halloween parade (“Richard Nixon”), a Scissor Sister-sounding disco diversion (“Defending My Life”), a defining character moment for DeDe Halcyon-Day (the invaluable Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone singing “Plus One”), and a Joplin-esque moment for Mona (the compelling Mary Birdsong singing “Seeds and Stems”), the aforementioned coming-out letter “Dear Mama” and “Paper Faces,” a bold ensemble number that, alas, conjures up visions of “Masquerade” from The Phantom of the Opera.

The only real disappointment in Act 2 (other than “Where Beauty Lies”) is that the show-ending song, “No Apologies,” doesn’t quite have the emotional heft it needs.

Judy KayeIn Act 1, the warm and wonderful Judy Kaye (seen at right, photo by Kevin Berne) as pot-smoking den mother Anna Madrigal, closes the act with a beautifully sung spotlight ballad called “The Next Time You See Me” that has to do with secrets and identity. The big notes are all there, and Kaye mines the song for all it’s worth, but there’s just not much there. The lyrics tangle in the melody, and the emotion is diluted, which seems unfair to the hardworking Kaye.

In Act 1, we get a Hair reject called “Atlantis” and a comedy number performed by the A-gays (“Homosexual Convalescent Center”) that’s fun but feels like it was funnier in The Producers. We finally start to get a sense of the characters’ affinity for one another in “Mary Ann,” but that comes too near the end of the act.

And now a complaint about the arrangements (credited to Carmel Dean and Stephen Oremus): too many of the songs sound like theme songs from ‘80s TV shows. Music director Cian McCarthy’s seven-piece band feels keyboard heavy, which is fine for the upbeat numbers but sounds thin on the ballads.

As it stands now, there’s more heart and heft in the Tales book than in the score. Generally speaking, the scenes are more effective in conveying the sense of friendship and family than the songs, and that makes for an off-balance show. Enjoyable and entertaining, but off-balance.

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City has only just started its journey. San Francisco audiences will eat up every little reference, from the Savoy Tivoli to the EndUp to Perry’s. But for Tales to truly find its audience, it needs to connect more powerfully to its musical heart.

[bonus interviews]
What do Elton John and Stephen Sondheim have to do with the creation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City? Read my feature on the musical’s creative team in Theatre Bay Area magazine. Read the feature here.


Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City continues an extended run through July 24 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$127. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org for information.

K-K-K-Katie Holmes on Broadway, `Tales’ in tune

Yes, Katie Holmes, late of Dawson’s Creek, she of the couch-jumping husband, the ever-changing cute hairdos and the impossibly adorable Suri parentage, is being rumored to be heading to Broadway for a revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons starring John Lithgow and Dianne Weist. Ms. Holmes must have had a conversation with Jennifer Garner, who had such a winning run on Broadway recently in Cyrano. And Holmes’ husband, Tom Cruise, must have had a man-to-man chat with Garner’s husband, Ben Affleck, about what it’s like to be a stay-at-home dad in paparazzi-infested New York.

Variety says the 29-year-old Holmes is in negotiation for the 1947 show, which would mark her Broadway debut. The stage run would also give Ms. Holmes a little much-needed acting cred. Her most recent big-screen turn, opposite Diane Keaton and Queen Latifah in Mad Money didn’t exactly generate Oscar buzz.

In other news of the Great White Way (via Barbaray Lane in San Francisco), the long-rumored musical version of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City looks like it’s finally rolling toward completion. It was long rumored that pop wunderkind Rufus Wainwright was going to turn Maupin’s beloved Baghdad by the Bay book into a musical, but now he’s off writing an opera for the MET.

So now it’s up to Jeff Whitty (Tony Award-winning book writerfor Avenue Q) and Scissor Sisters members Jason Sellards (aka Jake Shears, composer/lyricist) and John Garden (composer) to bring characters Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, Anna Madrigal, Mary Anne Singleton to the Broadway stage.

Jason Moore, who helmed Avenue Q and the upcoming Shrek musical, is slated to direct.

Seems a natural that a Tales musical would have its pre-Broadway run in — where else? — San Francisco. No word yet on such practical things as production dates.