Sunday, August 12, 2012

Bring It On the Musical (St. James Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This latest film-to-musical adaptation, one “inspired by” the 2000 film of the same name, concerns a vivacious high school cheerleading captain who, just on the brink of her team winning the championship, finds herself transferred to an inner-city high school after a sudden redistricting by the school board.

This may sound like a singularly uninteresting start for a show.

But, in fact, in the hands of Jeff Whitty (book), Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda (music), and Amanda Green and Miranda (lyrics), “Bring It On” is bright, funny, and refreshingly different than almost anything else on the boards.

Part of that difference is the display of Olympic-worthy acrobatics, but even without the somersaults and high flying and flipping stunts, the story engages, and I never sensed audience interest wavering. Furthermore, the underlying themes of friendship and good sportsmanship never turn sappy. Director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler maintains a good pace, with all the athletic movement and dancing well integrated.

Taylor Louderman is Campbell the cheerleader who finds herself out of her league in the mostly black Jackson High and she’s an appealing protagonist even as her character’s motivation unpleasantly turns into something akin to revenge. Her sidekick and fellow transferee, the hefty Bridget (Ryann Redmond), an outcast at their former Truman H.S. but warmly embraced by the cool kids at Jackson where her motley outfits register as the ultimate in hip, is played most winningly by Ryann Redmond.

Adrienne Warren is terrific as Danielle, leader of the crew at Jackson, who warily becomes friendly with Campbell, and Ariana DeBose and Gregory Haney are very funny as her fellow crew members Nautica and cross-dressing LaCienega. As you might expect, Campbell eventually convinces the crew to transform into a cheerleading squad.

Kate Rockwell has some good zingers as the bitchy Skylar and Elle McLemore channels Kristen Chenoweth as the ambitious Eva, though in fairness, maybe it’s just that sort of role.

Neil Haskell as Campbell’s wimpy boyfriend at Turner, and Jason Gotay as her new beau at Jackson are fine, but the latter’s character is rather weakly drawn.

The songs do what they need to do to advance the plot, and admirably, it’s not all loud and hard-driving as you might expect. Along with the upbeat numbers, there are some very pretty ballads starting with Campbell’s “One Perfect Moment” and there’s a particularly catchy and funny number in the second act, “It Ain’t No Thing.”

(St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th Street) or 212-239-6200, through October 7)
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