A Musical So Energetic It Leaves You Exhausted

The theme for this week seem to be “pure entertainment”. Last weekend, we saw “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang“: a children’s story with a nonsensical plot that is wonderfully entertaining. Thanksgiving Day, we saw “The Muppets“, a movie designed to reintroduce wonderfully entertaining characters. Last night, we saw yet another super-entertaining show without deep thoughts: “Bring It On: The Musical” at the Ahmanson Theatre…. and it was entertaining. I haven’t seen a show fire-up an audience like this one did in a long, long time.

Bring It On: The Musical” is inspired by the 2000 Kirsten Dunst film of the same name, although the only similarity is that there are two high school teams, one from a rich white school and one from a mixed school that compete for the national championships. The musical version uses a libertto by Jeff Whitty, one of the authors of “Avenue Q“, that tells the story of the teams from Truman and Jackson High Schools. We are first introduced to the team from Truman High School, led by Campbell (Taylor Louderman), Skylar (Kate Rockwell), and Kylar (Janet Krupin). This is Campbell’s senior year, and she’s finally going to lead the team to the National Championships. They recruit to fill the team, rejecting the large-sized team mascot, Bridget (Ryann Redmond), and finding the spirited sophmore Eva (Elle McLemore), who is made sophmore captain. Just before school starts, Campbell finds out she has been redistricted to Jackson High (together with Bridget). Jackson High doesn’t have a cheer squad—it has a hip-hop dance team. At Jackson High, the hip-hop crew is led by Danielle (Adrienne Warren), together with her best friends Nautica (Arianan DeBose) and La Cienege, a transvestite (Gregory Haney). Campbell has trouble fitting in, but Bridget is accepted immediately due to her curves. Bridget and Campbell work their way onto the dance team. After learning that Eve is now captain of the Truman Team (Skylar flunked home ec, and Kylar suddenly came down with Mono) and has Campbell’s boyfriend, Campbell convinces Danielle to go to regionals and then to championships. I think you can guess how the plot goes from here, so I won’t give it away.

Intellectually, this story is…. light. It’s a high school musical, folks, about competing cheer teams. You don’t get a lot of depth from cheerleaders. That’s not to say there aren’t messages in the show: most notably, the messages of acceptance that Bridget finds, and the message about friendship that Campbell finds. Bridget goes from being the ostracized team mascot because her looks and behavior don’t fit the mold of the skinny white bitches at Truman to being a sexy figure whose individuality and dance is cherished at Jackson. Although this is a good message, it is also a bit stereotypical, implying that white kids are overly focused on thinness, and ethnic kids accept some junk in the trunk. Campbell’s message is different: she learns that winning the championships at all costs isn’t everything—the true value is the friends you make along the way and how you compete. In doing this she learns to accept the differences of her friends. Again, the stereotypical message for a story like this. However, they are also positive messages, and do get the audience going.

But it is a musical, you say… so how is the music. Reasonably good, although you don’t walk out of the theatre humming any tunes. The production features music by Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”, “High Fidelity”) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In The Heights”), with lyrics by Amanda Green (“High Fidelity”) and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Most of the songs are high-energy numbers behind the cheer routines, and thus, non-traditional showsongs. The second acts features a few more traditional numbers, in particular a number sung by Natica and La CIenege to Bridget, encouraging to embrace her individuality and curves. That number works very well. I’ll note that I’ve read that there will eventually be a cast album from this show, which is a good thing (this is of particular significance because “Bring It On: The Musical. ” is not going to Broadway, although the tour is going almost everywhere else… and non-Broadway shows don’t always get cast albums). As we’re on the subject of music, I’ll note that arrangements and orchestrations were by Tom Kitt and Alex Lacamoire; Lacamoire also provided music supervision and dance arrangements. Michael Keller was the music coordinator, and Dave Pepin was the music director and conductor of the 7-piece orchestra (small, for the Ahmanson), featuring Pepin on keyboard, Andres Forero on drums, Joey Joseph on second keyboard, Josh Weinstein and Ralph Agresta on guitar, Ken Wild on Bass, and M. B. Gordy on percussion.

Turning to the cast: This is a very high-spirited cast of mostly newcomers. For many cast members, this is their first show—their main experience is cheerleading. This works to the show’s advantage: the cheer numbers are spot on and filled with youthful energy, and none of the actors bring in previous-show baggage. It is also a very young cast: although not all high-schoolers, I’d have to guess no one in the cast is over 25; there are certainly no “parent” roles or “adult” (i.e., non-teen) roles in the cast. Leading the spirited ensemble are Taylor Louderman (twitter) as Campbell and Adrienne Warren (twitter) as Danielle. Both are high energy, superb dancers and good at cheer, and portray their characters in a very realistic fashion. It was a delight to watch them, and I hope this propels them further.

In the second tier—but no less talented—are Ryann Redmond as Bridget and Elle McLemore as Eve. Redmond does a great job with Bridget—she brings joy and energy and vitality to the role. I was initially worried that her role would devolve into the stereotypical “fat girl”, but luckily it doesn’t and Redmond is one of the reasons. She’s a standout and deserves the applause she gets. McLemore’s role is a bit more of a characture of the scheming bitch, but she brings a lot of perky to the role. I could see McLemore eventually performing a number of roles similar to Kristen Chenowith: she has the same spirit and pop. Also in this tier are the lieutenant on each side: Kate Rockwell as Skylar and Janet Krupinas Kylar on the Truman side, and Ariana DeBose (Nautica) and Gregory Haney as La Cienega on the Jackson side. We see less of Rockwell and Krupin, but Rockwell plays the honest bitch role well, and Krupin is good as her underling. We see more of DeBose and Haney. In particular, Haney takes over any scene she (he) is in. The two work well together, and prove to not only be good actors, but great dancers.

If you’ve noticed, so far I haven’t mentioned any male roles. That’s because the “named” males have smaller roles. We’re introduced first to Steven (Neil Haskell), who plays the jock boyfriend of Campbell and later Eva. There’s not much depth to the role as written, but Haskell does what he can with it. On the Jackson side, there is Jason Gotay, who plays Randall (the non-cheer musician interested in Campbell), and Nicholas Womack, who plays Twig (the boy interested in Bridget). Again, lightly written roles, but these two do the best they can with these roles.

Rounding out the cast is a very talented ensemble of mostly newcomers, mostly seen before in cheer or otherwise involved with UCA (Universal Cheer Association). I’m marked the folks primarily involved with cheer with ♦, those in their professional debut with ◊. The remainder of the ensemble (additional roles noted) are: Calli Alden◊, Antwan Bethea♦◊, Dexter Carr◊, Courtney Corbeille♦◊, Brooklyn Alexis Freitag♦◊, Shonica Gooden, Haley Hannah, Rod Harrelson, Dominique Johnson (Cameron, Dance Captain), Melody Mills♦◊, Michael Mindlin (Cheer Camp Leader), Michael Naone-Carter◊, David Ranck♦, Bettis Richardson◊, Sheldon Tucker♦◊ and Lauren Whitt♦◊. Three performers are credited as soloists on songs; I didn’t recognize them singing, so they may have been in the background behind the cheer routines: Shonica Gooden on “Don’t Drop”; Nick Blaemire on “Cross the Line”, and Alysha Umphress on “Legendary”. Standbys and Swings were: Nikki Bohne (Standby for Campbell, Eve), Danielle Carlacci♦◊ (swing), Dahlston Delgado♦◊ (swing), Casey Jamerson (swing), Adrianna Parson (swing, assistant dance captain), and Billie Sue Roe♦◊ (swing).
The production was directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, who did a good job with this talented crop of newcomers and making the most of the light material. The dance routines were also very strong—both the hip-hop and the cheer routines. Credit for this goes to Blankenbuehler, as well as Stephanie Klemons (Associate Choreographer), Jessica Columbo (Cheer Consultant), and Varsity (Cheerleading Consultant). Holly-Anne Ruggiero was the assistant director.

Turning to the technical… The set, by David Korins, was relatively simple: a number of video screens, some movable locker structures, a bedroom set, a “Burger Pagoda” set. Most of the locales were established by the videos, designed by Jeff Sugg. Lighting was more significant: there were movers and LED lights everywhere, and used to great effect both for mood and the “wow” factor. The lighting was designed by Jason Lyons. The sound, by Brian Ronan was loud but with no apparent problems; at times, it was difficult to understand lyrics, but that may have been more the music than the sound. The costumes, by Andrea Lauer were (to my eyes) quite representative of high school, but I’ll leave that to my daughter to judge. Hair and Wigs were by Charles G. Lapointe, and were both invisible and sturdy enough to hold up to the cheer routines. Bonnie Panson was Production Stage Manager, and Ryan J. Bell was Stage Manager (assisted by RL Campbell). Jake Bellwas Technical Supervisor, and Lisa Dawn Cave was Production Supervisor.

It is clear that “Bring It On: The Musical” is intended not for Broadway, but to have a long life as a high-school production, in the same vein as Disney’s High School Musical. Viewed in that light, this should be a very do-able production, if the school has a suitably talented cheer team and hip-hop squad. The sets don’t require the videos (they just provide the “pop”), and static sets might work well providing the transitions could be worked out. What makes this show is the dance, and if the school can pull it off, it should work well.

Bring It On: The Musical” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre until December 10. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson Box Office, and there’s a good chance Hottix are still available. Tickets may be available on Goldstar. After Los Angeles, the remainder of the “Bring It On: The Musical” tour itinerary is: San Francisco, CA (Dec. 14-Jan. 7, 2012, at the Orpheum Theatre); Denver, CO (Jan. 10-21, 2012, at the Buell Theatre); Houston, TX (Jan. 24-Feb. 5, 2012, at the Hobby Center); Fayetteville, AR (Feb. 7-12, 2012, at the Walton Arts Center); Dallas, TX (Feb. 14-26, 2012, at the Music Hall); Des Moines, IA (Feb. 28-March 4, 2012, at the Civic Center); Chicago, IL (March 6-25, 2012, at the Cadillac Palace); St. Louis, MO (March 27-April 8, 2012, at the Fox Theatre); Charlotte, NC (April 10-15, 2012, at the Belk Theatre); Durham, NC (April 17-22, 2012, at the Durham PAC); Providence, RI (April 24-29, 2012, at the Providence PAC); and Toronto, ON (May 2-June 3, 2012, at the Canon Theatre). The next show at the Ahmanson is “Fela“, moved up from April to fill in for “Funny Girl“, which was postponed. “Fela” runs from 12/14-1/22, and hottix are already on sale.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: This evening sees us back in Saugus for the last show of the REP season, “The Graduate”. The first weekend of December brings “Lost and Unsung“, a celebration of music cut from musicals, at LA City College. The next weekend is busy, with a Mens Club Shabbat in the morning, and Travels with my Aunt” at the Colony Theatre in the evening. The end of December brings Fela!” at the Ahmanson Theatre (on 12/29). The remainder of December is unscheduled, but there is the de rigueur movie and Chinese food on Christmas day. January will bring the first show of the REP East season, as well as (hopefully) “Art” at the Pasadena Playhouse and “God of Carnage” at ICT Long Beach (ticketed for February 5). February will also bring “Ring of Fire” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, “Old Wicked Songs” at the Colony Theatre, and Bernadette Peters in concert at the Valley Performing Arts Center. As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.