Neither roses nor brickbats are likely to be thrown at “Bring It On,” the new musical at the St. James, but you’ll see plenty of cheerleaders tossed up high. With a story drawn not from the 2000 film starring Kirsten Dunst, but rather from one of its four direct-to-video sequels, the tuner remains airborne often enough to overcome several obstacles along the way, starting with overly familiar plotting and characters. Strong performances from a personable cast, athletically impressive staging and an engaging score combine to make “Bring It On” a pert and refreshing summer surprise.
The story tells of squeaky-white cheerleader Campbell (Taylor Louderman) taking over as captain of the championship squad at Truman High, only to find herself inexplicably redistricted to underachieving, ghettoish Jackson High. She determines to form her ragtag and disinterested new classmates into a squad that will defeat her fair-weather Truman friends at the national cheerleading competition — all of this accompanied by enough jokes to float a kids’ sitcom, in a book penned by “Avenue Q” scribe Jeff Whitty.
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The show displays a low pulse through much of the first act, despite several acrobatic displays of cheerleading flips and twirls. Once the heroine switches schools, though, the pace quickens, as does audience interest. Things finally spring to life after 45 minutes or so, with a hip-hop number (“Friday Night Jackson”) featuring the heroine in a cheesy-but-funny Leprechaun suit. From then on, entertainment value stays high.
Fresh-faced Louderman makes an impressive Broadway debut as the spunky Campbell, sharing top billing with four other first-timers, who all earn their spurs. Adrienne Warren takes singing honors as the leader of the Jackson girls; Jason Gotay makes a likable, non-aggressive hero; and Elle McLemore, as an Eve Harrington type named Eva, almost steals the show when she turns comically vicious in the second act. Providing ballast for all the smiling faces and toned bodies is Ryann Redmond as Bridget, an overweight Truman outcast who manages to turn the tables at Jackson and even gets a guy.
The score comes from the intriguing combo of composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (“In the Heights”), composer Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”) and lyricist Amanda Green (“High Fidelity”). The early songs are perfunctory, but the tunes improve with the leprechaun number. In the second act, the songs — which include a good trio led by Redmond, “It Ain’t No Thing”; a lovely, guitar-heavy duet for romantic leads Louderman and Gotay, “Enjoy the Trip”; and a comedy turn for villainess McLemore, “Killer Instinct” — become more germane to the plot.
Fans of the composers will identify much, though not all, of their individual work; a breakdown of the songs shows seven three-way collaborations, four solely by Miranda, and eight, including the three cited above, by Kitt/Green. Miranda and Kitt are justly celebrated, but the lesser-known Green deserves further exposure, catching the ear, for instance, with lyrics pairing Genghis Kahn with Bristol Palin.
Director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (“In the Heights”) keeps things energetic and lively while maneuvering the high-flying cast safely around the intrusive videoscreens that, in this touring show, are forced to serve as scenery. The cheerleading leaps and pyramids are impressive, yes, but there are too many too soon; they begin to look too easy. The stunts in the final number from the Jackson Squad are notably different than the rest, and thus more effective.
“Bring It On” — which preemed at Atlanta’s Alliance in January 2011 and regrouped in November in Los Angeles at the start of a 13-city jaunt — is on Broadway for a 12-week stint. With tourists, kids out of school, and five tuners soon to close, these spunky cheerleaders might find cheerful news at the St. James.