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.
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.
To give you a sense of what the show looks and sounds like. Loud and flashy.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
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.