This past Saturday I had the surprise joy of seeing Bring it On: The Musical on Broadway. My friend and I had intended to see Newsies but it was sold out and Evita was too expensive so our third choice (really my third choice, as she wasn’t too sold on seeing it) was Bring it On. I was a huge fan of the first movie and some of the sequels were alright but I didn’t know what to think of the musical. I knew Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) and Tom Kitt (High Fidelity, Next to Normal) composed the music and they’re great, but at the same time it was a movie franchise of not-entirely-high quality being turned into a musical, so while I had high hopes I also had, shall we say, tempered expectations.
I was blown away by the show.
From the second it started I was hooked. The show opened with main character Campbell singing what was probably my favorite song of the show, “What I Was Born to Do,” in which she basically exposits how she came to be a cheerleader and that she hopes she’ll be elected captain this coming year. Now, as the good Officer Lockstock of Urinetown will tell you, “nothing can kill a show like too much exposition”. Thankfully the song is not just an exposition dump but instead a high-energy introduction to Campbell and her situation which works perfectly to capture the audience’s attention and transport them into the story of the show.
I really think an opening number can make or break a show because if the audience isn’t with a show’s characters from the get-go it’s tough to get them invested in the story. This number succeeded so well that for almost the entire first act I was so swept up in the story that my critical brain was completely shut down and I simply enjoyed the show and had fun. Let me tell you, it’s been quite a while since that’s happened at a show, even at shows I love.
The musical is not based on any one film in the franchise but is simply another story with the general themes and elements which make up the original film and its sequels. In true Bring it On fashion there’s a rivalry between two squads (Truman High and Jackson High), betrayal (from friends and lovers) and the forging of new and unexpected friendships.
And of course, amazing cheerleading.
The spectacle of the cheering in this show is certainly not its sole strength, but it is an undeniable part of what makes it great. Never have I ever seen such incredible stunts on stage. I have always loved cheerleaders and found them the most exciting part of any sporting event (even when I was on the basketball team), so to see such incredible cheerleaders in person was breathtaking. While many people will downgrade cheerleaders as frivolous, shallow, or any other (and often more vile) insult I have always thought they were great performers as well as athletes.
That’s one of the things I love about Bring it On, both the musical and the movies. It gives cheerleaders some respect. It doesn’t try to show them all as paragons of virtue or anything heavy-handed like that; it shows them as real human beings with strengths and weaknesses. They aren’t defined by what they do, but what they do is no less important because of that fact. They are hardworking athletes who put time, effort, and devotion into this sport. This doesn’t mean that the show doesn’t have a sense of humor about cheering though. Everything is taken from the perspective of “It’s important to us, it’s challenging and work-intensive, but at the end of the day it’s fun and that’s why we all love it”.
The show also gives a surprising amount of respect to another oft-maligned group of people: transgender teens. The character of La Cienega is a male-bodied transgender person who identifies as female. La Cienega is part of the story not as comic relief (any more so than any other character, that is), not as a martyr, not as a poster child, but just as a character. At first I wasn’t sure what the character was meant to be: was a man playing a female character for laughs? Shock value? Were the other characters aware that this was a male or was the character female despite being played by a male actor, like Edna Turnblad in Hairspray? These concerns weren’t really settled until mid-Act II when La Cienega gave another character a little reality check about “not fitting in”, at which point I decided that La Cienega was an amazing character and the writers really represented the transgender community well with her.
The music for the show was excellent. Both Miranda and Kitt have a gift for making scores which are cohesive and flow through their stories effortlessly and while this score is a little more (intentionally) disparate it still does what I have come to expect from these composers: open strong, rise and fall in accordance with emotion, stick in mind, and close leaving the audience satisfied yet still with the desire for an encore. The only complaint I could possibly raise was that Campbell maybe had one or two more solos than she needed, but I was perfectly happy to hear them.
Speaking of Campbell, I have to mention Taylor Louderman who carried this show so perfectly on her perky little shoulders. This isn’t a show like Billy Elliot where the whole show rests on one character, the spotlight is certainly shared, but Campbell is our protagonist and Taylor played her flawlessly. She was bright and cheerful without ever being annoying, heartfelt and sincere when the time came, and had a really nice voice which she used well both in singing and speaking to convey her character’s personality. Other standouts in the cast were Neil Haskell as Campbell’s boyfriend Steve, who was just hilarious and I already loved from watching on “So You Think You Can Dance”; Kate Rockwell as Skylar whose attitude and lack of personal growth were played perfectly; Gregory Haney as La Cienega, of course, for reasons mentioned already; Ariana DeBose as Nautica and Ryann Redmond as Bridget who brought the laughs wherever they went; Elle McLemore as Eva who gave new meaning to the term “fanatic”; Jason Gotay as Randall who brought charm and heart to a character I could easily find annoying; and Adrienne Warren as Danielle. Adrienne was the other main lead whose rivalry and eventual friendship with Campbell drives the story along. Adrienne, like Taylor, played her part perfectly and nailed the more surprisingly gentle scenes just as well as the standard “tough street girl” scenes.
Really everyone in this show was phenomenal. There was not a single weak link in this cast.
Bring it On: The Musical is a spectacularly enjoyable show with a fresh cast and presentation. I highly recommend it to anyone with the opportunity to see it. Its limited engagement runs on Broadway until January 20 at which point I don’t know what will happen. Unlike most shows it toured before opening on Broadway so I’m not sure it’ll head out on the road again. Make sure you do your best to catch it before it’s gone!