24 July 2012

Previewing ‘Bring It On: The Musical’

It’s a testament to Amanda Green’s strength as a songwriter that I bought a ticket to her latest effort, Bring It On, with no reason to believe that the show would be my cup of chai. It’s yet another musical adaptation of a popular movie (the first in a franchise about cheerleading competitions starred Kirsten Dunst and opened in 2000) of the sort that Broadway exploits so often these days, the better to lure in tourists, and surely therefore it would entail an earsplitting rock’n’roll score. With reasonable certainty that the cheerleading and choreography would be impressive, I decided to treat the show as a dance concert — as well as a not-to-be-missed opportunity to track Amanda’s creative development.

In the end, I was right about two things: the absolutely astonishing choreography does indeed elicit gasps and whoops from the audience, and Amanda’s lyrics are indeed wonderful. Beyond that, though, Bring It On is pure entertainment, tremendous fun from start to finish, with superlative contributions from all concerned.

Amanda Green: What She Was Born to Do.
Now go update your website, please.

And let’s start, for once, with the sound design. The producers and director (Andy Blankenbuehler, who also choreographed) trust the sheer energy of Bring It On to excite us without artificially stirring us up by pumping the volume. Sound designer Brian Ronan keeps the levels clear and comfortable, and though I sat in the fifth row, center, I never once feared for my eardrums.

With a “libretto” by Jeff Whitty, based on Jessica Bendinger’s screenplay, Bring It On manifests an admirable confidence in the material and in the art form. At least until Stephen Sondheim rolled around, Broadway musicals didn’t often tell complex stories, and Bring It On couldn’t be simpler. A cheerleader transfers to a new high school but doesn’t let go of her competitive ambitions; by helping her, her new friends teach her important lessons about what really matters in life.

We get elements that chime with the inclusive, misfits-make-good theme of Glee, and there’s an immensely gratifying subplot that evokes All About Eve. There’s a love story, and it’s frankly conventional, yet it’s told so economically, with such appealing actors, that we’re granted the satisfaction of figuring most of it out for ourselves. Thus the big love scene (“Enjoy the Trip”) imparts something bigger and wiser than a mere “I love you.”

The creative team steadfastly refuses to bludgeon us with the obvious even when it comes to La Cienega, a statuesque beauty. As Act I unfolds and she emerges from the ensemble, we realize that she’s really a boy (played by Gregory Haney) and probably gay. But there’s no angst and never a big declaration, so that La Cienega is free to be herself, which is to say one of the gang.

Character turns: Nautica (Ariana DeBose), Bridget (Redmond), and La Cienega (Haney).

Brought up on Broadway, Amanda has been patiently honing her craft for years, and surely the fact that she has performed her own songs for cabaret audiences has proved an essential stage in her development: she knows firsthand how to get through to us. Lamentably, I was in France when her previous Broadway show, High Fidelity, enjoyed its too-brief run, but I played the cast album endlessly — possibly to the consternation of my neighbors in Beynes, but to my own delight.

Amanda has learned to make characters sing the way real people talk. She doesn’t resort to highfalutin Sondheimian diction or Schwartzian rhyming-dictionary monosyllables, and her poetry is honest and true. While she may have inherited some lyrical gene from her father and his writing partner, that helps her words to convey character and sassy wit, there’s a startling underlying fierceness that’s all her own, and it pops up all over the score to Bring It On.

Bridget (Redmond) becomes the moral center of the show.

A helpful preview article in Playbill explains some of the collaborative process: the songs, ranging from ballads to rap, and all pitch-perfect, were written by Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, High Fidelity) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), and the lyrics by Amanda and Miranda. (Hey, now I’m rhyming!) While the team probably knows for sure who wrote what, the rest of us would be hard-pressed to identify their fingerprints. What counts is that the characters, not the authors, express themselves so clearly.

And the cast is up to the challenge, the young actors turning in fresh, distinctive characterizations. In addition to Haney’s savory La Cienega, I particularly admired Kate Rockwell’s imperious Skylar, Ryann Redmond’s exuberant Bridget, and Nicolas Womack’s brash Twig. Gifted and good-looking, Neil Haskell thrilled TV audiences when he appeared on So You Think You Can Dance, and he’s at it again as Steven in Bring It On. And Elle McLemore is a twisted delight as the Eve Harrington character, called (why not?) Eva.

Finding out who your real friends are: Danielle (Warren), Campbell (Louderman), and Eva (McLemore).
With Betty Comden, Amanda’s dad turned All About Eve into a musical, Applause. But that show features substantially less cheerleading.

The central roles are given to two outstanding artists. As Danielle, an inner-city spitfire yearning to move on, Adrienne Warren projects such intensity that she might easily dominate the entire show — but as Campbell, her bourgeoise rival-turned-ally, Taylor Louderman holds her own with a winning mix of ditsy humor and sincere emotion. Displaying authentic voices and flawless moves, they’re both sensational, and the relationship that grows between their characters is as potent as that in any love story.

Star power: Warren and Louderman.

Really, everyone in this show is terrific. Comprising experienced cheerleaders as well as dancers and singers, the cast has been perfecting these performances since the show originated at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, subsequently touring in California and who knows where else. (I’ll have to ask Amanda.) As choreographer, Blankenbuehler demands high-flying feats of derring-do, and — while singing and staying in character — these kids deliver.

Inevitably, perhaps, I remembered that other cheerleading musical, last season’s Lysistrata Jones, and indeed David Korins’ set design is even simpler, while no less evocative — and still, with its substantially larger cast, Bring It On never left me feeling shortchanged. Whitty’s book is better thought-out than Beane’s for Lysistrata Jones, and Bring It On is exceptionally family-friendly, too. (I sat next to an 8-year-old girl and her doll.) I suspect that high schools with strong cheerleading programs will be producing this musical for years to come. Why put down your pom-poms in the off-season?

Score one for plausibility: Lysistrata Jones wore a sexy grownup outfit, too, but here, Campbell is only fantasizing.

Really, the happiest surprise of this show is how much respect it shows for the classic musical-comedy form. The creative team — quite joyously, from what I can tell — relies not only on its outsize gifts but also on the individual strengths of the performers, which is how all of the greatest Broadway shows, without exception, used to operate. This is in no way one of those pre-fab tourist-trap movie adaptations, but a real show.

Bring It On officially opens its limited Broadway run on August 1: the performance I attended last night was a preview. Thus I hasten to underline the presumption, which accompanies any preview, that things can only get even better. Bring It On is so good already, it’s hard to see where there’s any room for improvement — but Amanda has surprised me before, and I can’t wait to see this show again.

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