“Bring It On: The Musical” thrusts us into the mascot-eat-mascot world of competitive high school cheerleading, where it’s fair to say it readily qualifies for regionals but will require some work to get to the championship. Attractive cast, songs and production values will fuel the post-Ahmanson tour, though there’s little at stake emotionally in the storytelling. Cheerful in every sense of the word, “Bring It On” needs to develop the stick-to-the-ribs quality you find in every long-run hit.
Judges would grant the highest scores to the score, which quickly dispels any apprehension about melding the disparate talents of “In the Heights” (Lin-Manuel Miranda), “High Fidelity” (Tom Kitt and Amanda Green) and “Next to Normal” (Kitt). Miranda surely took first chair in penning the funky rap for urban Jackson High, but the overall cohesion leaves no reason to disbelieve the team’s claims of group accomplishment.
On first hearing, there’s pleasant melody, solid rhymes and cleverness top to bottom, notably in self-esteem boosters “Do Your Own Thing” and “It Ain’t No Thing,” and romantic ballad “Might As Well Enjoy the Trip” for plucky heroine Campbell (lovely newcomer Taylor Louderman) and cheer-phobic yet dependable boyfriend Randall (Jason Gotay).
Virtually all the numbers propel the story forward, a rare thing nowadays, with further velocity provided by helmer-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. The “In the Heights” award winner is equally at home with hip-hop moves and traditional Broadway hoofing, and this time takes further inspiration from the cheerleading milieu’s crisp athleticism and gleaming bravado.
But about that story. “Avenue Q” librettist Jeff Whitty wisely eschews the 2000 hit pic’s bitter interschool rivalry, which would be tough to make sing, in favor of a more congenial plot twist out of one of the numerous sequels: Truman High team captain Campbell gets redistricted to Jackson, which boasts an accomplished fly girl crew led by Danielle (finely authoritative Adrienne Warren) but looks down its nose at pom-poms.
To everyone’s surprise but that of the audience, the gals eventually bond, form a squad and go for the gold.
Interestingly, Jackson is meant to exude a tough street vibe, yet – in a likely nod to the “Glee” fan base – offers a high-tolerance zone for plus-size pepperpot Bridget (Ryann Redmond) and full-out tranny La Cienega (Gregory Haney), both of whom rule the school to make the most of Whitty’s wittiest snaps. No need for “It Gets Better” on this campus. How could things get any more mellow?
Act two’s plotting becomes turgid with the emergence of supervillain sophomore Eva (Elle McLemore, forced into wild, campy excesses), who has usurped Campbell’s place at Truman. This “All About Eva” subplot, with distinct echoes of “Glee”‘s Sue and Rachel, is complicated but never very interesting.
And the Jackson squad’s decision to “Cross the Line” and violate the competition’s rules at finals serves to muddle what should be a thrilling outcome. We can’t really appreciate what’s at stake in their strategy, before or after, so the climax is rendered inconsequential.
Thrills there are, aplenty, in the cheerleading routines, though Blankenbuehler may be unwise to throw all his punches in the first 10 minutes. If he parceled out the handsprings and lifts more sparingly, the audience would be practically aching to see the ensemble bring it on and blow the roof off the playhouse.
As it is, the sequences all seem to begin with the same drumbeats and end with the same shine-it-on pyramids, and every time they want to crank up the energy they toss a cheerleader higher in the air upstage. (That’s a strategy other tuners might emulate, actually. The odd chorine sent aloft could really pep up a lagging “Porgy and Bess” or “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”)
Through a simple grid of flying bridges and video screens, David Korins’ sets and Jason Lyons’ lighting excitingly shift the locales from local gym to frenzied rock arena.
But all the pyrotechnics in the world can’t touch the heart the way the right material can. “Bring It On” clearly wants to wind up huggable and poignant in the manner of “Grease” or “Rent,” but doesn’t yet earn the audience’s requisite personal connection to its characters.
Numerous hints suggest the revision process continues, not inappropriately to a tryout tour. If so, here’s an unsolicited Tweet to the authors: Drop the Helen Keller jokes and special-ed lyrics. The show is already funny. You win Klass Klowns without having to go there, dudes. Seriously.