Friday, May 4, 2012

Review: (Toronto) Bring It On

(photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Don’t Hate, Congratulate!
Bring It On entertains without apology
by Stuart Munro
Bring It On is one of my favourite terrible movies. Without any pretense of being a Great Film, it joyfully parodies the world of competitive cheerleading and, more importantly, itself. Its ninety plus minutes are spent doing little more than providing light entertainment and it makes no apologies for it. But Bring It On: The Musical was not only written by Tony Award winners Jeff Whitty and Lin-Manuel Miranda (for their work on Avenue Q and In The Heights respectively), but by Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Kitt, composer of the groundbreaking Next To Normal. Would these authors attempt to inject a little depth and grace into this otherwise lighter fare? Should they even try?
I’m pleased to say that the answer to both questions is an enthusiastic “No!”
The plot is predictable and full of improbabilities. And that’s fine.

Bring It On: The Musical is little more than its cinematic namesake: two and a half hours of light entertainment that will leave you beaming from ear to ear. The show takes its inspiration from the film, but the similarities pretty much stop with the cheers. Bring It On on stage is almost an entirely new story. We follow Campbell (Taylor Louderman), star cheerleader and captain of her squad at Truman High, as she deals with the fact she’s suddenly been transferred to the inner city Jackson High School. Here, there is no squad, only a hip-hop dance crew lead by Danielle (Adrienne Warren), and her two (amazingly named) friends Nautica (Ariana DeBose) and La Cienega (Gregory Haney). Over the course of the evening, Campbell goes from ridiculed white rich girl to star of the school and eventually, of course, wins the love of the man who always believed in her. The plot is predictable and full of improbabilities. And that’s fine. I knew exactly what I was getting into when I begged to review the show for The Charlebois Post, and I got everything I expected.
Taylor Louderman as Campbell headlines Bring It On. Campbell is on stage nearly the entire time and, as a result, the success of the illusion depends largely on her performance. Louderman delivers consistently. Her powerful voice and funky dance moves are wonderfully countered by an almost comic naïveté, and her voice somehow wavers (seemingly on cue) whenever her perfect little world gets shattered (which is quite a lot). As Danielle, Campbell’s counterpart at Jackson High, Adrienne Warren gives a sassy performance. Warren, with her rich and soulful voice, manages to take what would otherwise be fairly generic pop music and make it energetic and engaging. However, the real show stealers are Ryann Redmond as Bridget, and Nicolas Womack as Twig, the show’s secondary romantic couple. Both actors exude character, wit and comic timing, all while executing their music, spoken word rhythms and choreography flawlessly. They both received some of the loudest cheers at the curtain call, and it’s not hard to understand why. Likewise, the ensemble was stellar, performing with energy and conviction. If their efforts seemed at times lacklustre, I blame the material and not them.
...the last time I saw so many lights in the Ed Mirvish Theatre was when We Will Rock You was gracing its stage...

Bring It On’s score is nothing special. I’m not a huge fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music (as readers of my review for In The Heights may recall …) and I had hoped that some of Tom Kitt’s influence might have shown through. This is, sadly, not the case. The score, while toe tapping, is largely functional and forgettable, ranging from typical pop tunes to spoken word to one song that almost sounded like a Schoolhouse Rock! homage. I never got a really good moment where the entire chorus stopped the show with their vocals, and I found myself wondering if harmonies had been sacrificed for the half of the cast from a cheerleading background. Likewise, the lyrics by Miranda and Amanda Green are largely uninspired and straightforward. There is a lot of music, and at times the show feels like a series of MTV music videos linked together by brief, densely packed and usually hilarious scenes by librettist Jeff Whitty. The information flies by at a fast pace; blink or cough, and you might miss something. I was going to say something disparaging about the efforts of the choreographer, likening him to a poor man’s Andy Blankenbuehler (choreographer of In The Heights and 9 to 5) until I realized that Blankenbuehler also choreographed Bring It On. I’m generally a fan of his work, but here it seems we got something of a last minute effort. Perhaps his energy was more focused on his duties as director, and here, at least, he is more successful—the show is well paced and his cast moves effortlessly around the stage. This is no doubt aided by David Korins’s simple but imaginative set. Using little more than four video screens, which resemble a score board, and some lockers, we’re easily moved between all the various locations without confusion. Jason Lyons’s lighting design is bright and has a real rock concert feel to it. In fact, I think the last time I saw so many lights in the Ed Mirvish Theatre was when We Will Rock You was gracing its stage. Thankfully, Brian Ronan’s sound design does not follow this rock concert mentality, and the volume of the show was nothing close to deafening, allowing the audience to actually hear the actors clearly.
It’s not unthinkable to presume that some of the men on the squad might be spending the evening with some of the other men on the squad.

The structure of the show, if implausible, generally works, but I do have a few small issues. Firstly, Campbell’s love story involving Randall (played by Jason Gotay) is so underdeveloped that I often forgot it was going on. It is easily overshadowed by the more engaging story of Bridget and Twig. Secondly, the gay man in me was hoping for a little more gay content. I mean, we’re talking cheerleaders here. It’s not unthinkable to presume that some of the men on the squad might be spending the evening with some of the other men on the squad. The film managed to do this back in 2000 when it was maybe a little more controversial, but the closest we get on stage is a quick kiss between two secondary characters during the final song. Thirdly, the intermission was poorly timed. Act II opens with one of the better numbers of the evening where Campbell rallies the troops, and would’ve made a far more effective Act I finale. This song was followed by an all too brief fantasy sequence that, expanded, would be perfect as an Act II opener.
Having said all that, Bring It On is an honestly fun and funny time. I smiled, I laughed, I even cheered on the cheerleaders. Fans of the film will get a different story, but one that’s equally lighthearted and entertaining. Fans of more serious theatre will undoubtedly be disappointed, but I like to be entertained at least as much as I like to be challenged, and Bring It On: The Musical offers plenty of entertainment, asking nothing in return but your indulgence.

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