Bring it On: The Musical
The biggest surprise of "Bring It On: The Musical," officially the first new Broadway musical of the season with its recent extension into 2013, is how little it resembles the 2000 movie of the same name. As a property selling itself on audience familiarity (even of the 2 a.m.-on-USA-Network variety) with head cheerleader Kirsten Dunst's brave struggle to give her squad an honest victory after years of ripping their routines off a less well placed school, "Bring It On: The Musical" borrows only the archetypes and the suggestion that it's not crazy for a high school girl to value cheerleading above everything else in the world. (Note to high school girls out there: It is crazy.)
Apparently, just like Jason Bourne, there was never just one Torrance. This Torrance is named Campbell (Taylor Louderman), and her path to the climactic championship runs through the halls of cheerleader-less Jackson High School, where Campbell has been redistricted just weeks before she was supposed to ascend to captain of the Truman High squad. At Jackson, the most popular girl (Adrienne Warren) leads the school dance crew and derisively refers to white-bread Campbell as "chicken noodle," but learns to trust her enough to allow Campbell to lead her new school to cheerleading glory and conveniently replace the friends she left behind. This story line (by Jeff Whitty of "Avenue Q" fame) is fairly basic but leaves a lot of room for musical pyrotechnics by co-composers Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
In an inversion of the natural order of things, "Bring It On" opened in Atlanta and toured the country before settling in on Broadway, and most of its Great White Way cast is from that first production. Maybe that's why Louderman's emotional arc feels so practiced, more like she's concentrating on hitting those marks than reacting to what's going on around her. Maybe it's the frequency of the surges in feeling the score puts her through, but she often projects as very small compared to the hammy Ryann Redmond and Gregory Haney, as a Truman misfit and a member of the Jackson elite (respectively), who occupy the stage more convincingly even if they go broader. Likewise, her counterpart on the Truman squad (Elle McLemore) goes full "All About Eve" in her quest to replace Campbell, but always looks like she's having fun doing it.
But why is a musical about team cheerleading so reliant on individual performances in the first place? "Bring It On" succeeds most broadly in group numbers like "Do Your Own Thing," in which a bewildered Campbell is introduced to her new school, and "Friday Night Jackson," including a mesmerizing sequence of Louderman krumping in a leprechaun costume that may be the most surreal happening on Broadway since "La Bête." And sure, the final champion numbers raise the predictable thrills (with a fourth-wall nod to the deviations the musical number takes in attempting to represent a cheerleading routine).
Yet "Bring It On"'s low-energy start with six either partly or entirely downtempo numbers featuring characters singing alone in the middle of the stage drags the whole show down. (Contrast, however painfully, with the movie's pep-rally kickoff featuring tongue-in-cheek lines like "I'm wanted, I'm hot/ I'm everything you're not.")
Part of the fault rests in a stage set that dwarfs the actors with four huge video screens, but a work so keyed to a group sport shouldn't be so over reliant on individual stars. The primary fault for the staging has to be laid at the feet of director Andy Blankenbuehler, who as a choreographer first should have known how iceberging his stars out there onstage with nothing to do would look.
The method of song-writing for individual cast members bears the thumbprints of Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose Tony-winning "In the Heights" successfully and catchily cultivated a series of intimate moments among residents of Washington Heights over one memorable night. Miranda has a great gift, and his contributions to "Bring It On" undoubtedly anchored it musically, particularly the soul-and hip-hop-influenced Jackson High numbers that would have been unspeakably lamer otherwise. Whether he could have punched up less inspiring numbers like "Might As Well Enjoy The Trip," in which Campbell and love interest Randall (the bland, 30-looking Jason Gotay) repeat some nonsense inspirational clichés and refer to the Grateful Dead, is unclear, but the single-character approach that worked so well for "In The Heights" is a misfire here.
How producers plan to keep "Bring It On"'s "inspired by" plot, the result of lawsuits involving the movie's screenwriter, a secret from its target audience is anyone's guess. (A summary on its website refers coyly to a "colorful crew of characters" and "exciting fresh sound.") The producers are clearly banking on "Bring It On"'s biggest fans not to be plot purists, and they may be onto something. For the rest of us, the occasional swells of the score and group spectacles may not be enough to sustain interest in this show.
"Bring It On" runs through Dec. 30 at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. For info or tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.bringitonmusical.com/