Thursday, March 08, 2012

Skilled Creators, Spirited Effort Fail To Spell S-U-C-C-E-S-S For Cheerful 'Bring It On' -- Theater Review

Theater Review

Bring It On: The Musical
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 25

When I first heard about Bring It On: The Musical upon it being included in my Broadway in Chicago subscription series--prior to having run on Broadway or even officially being slated to--my initial instinct was not one of great, pyramid-topping expectations.

Though the cinematic cheerleading opus from 2000 had a fair amount of cheesy charm, Bring It On never struck me as begging for a stage version. Even if it played well to the youth crowd in the vein of High School Musical--and I applaud shows that aim to indoctrinate new audiences, but want them to entertain me too--I was skeptical of the mass appeal such a show might offer.

But Hairspray, Billy Elliot, Legally Blonde, A Christmas Story, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Wedding Singer and Shrek are just a few recent examples of movies that, perhaps unsuspectingly, were transitioned into soundly enjoyable or even terrific musicals with sufficient cross-generational appeal.

Heck, if I were told in 1966--forgetting that I had yet to be conceived--that there was a new musical based on Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, would I have anticipated a sublime song and dance sensation? But Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields, Neil Simon, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon deliciously morphed it into Sweet Charity.

And several of the creatives behind Bring It On: The Musical--Jeff Whitty, Tom Kitt, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andy Blankenbuehler--were (separately) responsible for three of the very best, and most distinctive, musicals of the past decade: Avenue Q, In the Heights and Next To Normal. Though it's notable that these were all rare recent stage works not based on a movie or existing property.

So although I didn't head into the Cadillac Palace on Wednesday doing backflips (as if), especially as Chris Jones' Tribune preview cited poor reviews of the tour in Los Angeles & San Francisco and considerable pre-Chicago retooling, I looked forward to seeing what the talented crew had molded and evolved.

Unfortunately, Bring It On still feels very much like a work in progress. There were a few nice numbers and lots of impressive acrobatics by the attractive young cast, but the narrative felt rather schizophrenic and the whole thing just failed to congeal properly.

I don't know if this was the plan all along--though per the California reviews the basic storyline has seemingly stayed constant since the tour began last fall--but the musical deviates almost completely from what happened in the movie. This doesn't matter, as it's not like the movie was The Producers and should be held sacred, nor did I fully recall what happened in the film until reviewing the plot summary on Wikipedia.

So I won't bother to detail the digressions, but will give a brief synopsis in trying to explain, in part, what didn't work for me. (SPOILER ALERT, I guess)

Rather than Kirsten Dunst's Torrance, the lead character here is named Campbell (played by Taylor Louderman). She is the popular head cheerleader at whitebread Truman High, but has a heart and, albeit ineffectually, rebukes her stereotypically bitchy squadmate, Skylar (Kate Rockwell). But partway through Act I, Campbell is"redistricted" to the multicultural Jackson High. The song that accompanies this transition is among the best in the show--there is no song list in the program so I don't know the title--and it was interesting seeing how Campbell copes with being ostracized, now even less popular than the heavyset Bridget (Ryann Redmond), who also transferred schools. But amidst Campbell dealing with her new surroundings rather gracefully while growing as a person, the show introduces an All About Eve scenario involving a Machiavellian Truman High sophomore named Eva (Elle McLemore). Almost out of nowhere, Campbell instantly becomes more snarky, soulless and vengeful than she was to begin with.

I realize a narrative twist was needed to set up the final competition in Act II--and as you might suspect, our heroine eventually sees the superficial light--but it seemed to me Skylar was a more ready-made and natural rival.

Yes, I feel a bit silly delving this deep into analyzing the storyline of Bring It On: The Musical--which I should point out was given a standing ovation by the mostly youngish crowd in the balcony, so I'm not here to dissuade those who expect to like it--but although there was genuinely a good amount of "spirited" effort, I was never really engrossed nor wowed.

There were a few enjoyable songs, especially those that tapped the hip-hop tableau employed so masterfully by Lin-Manuel Miranda in "In The Heights." Though it was a bit saccharine, the "cheer up" ballad sung by Campbell's rather sporadic love interest, Randall (Jason Gotay)--I believe it may be called "Enjoy The Trip"--had just enough inspired lyrics and good intentions to work.

But with the caveat that, unlike most musicals I see, I was completely unfamiliar with the score heading in, very few of the songs felt particularly distinctive or special, and I can't say I recall any of the melodies a day later.

The cheerleading routines were well done, but seemingly not infused with the same degree of street vitality as those in the movie, even though Adrienne Warren is demonstrably good as Danielle, the Jackson High leader who battles and befriends the transplanted Campbell.

As one might expect given its subject matter, Bring It On: The Musical has a nice "can-do" vibe and perhaps with enough tinkering, those involved can still spell H-I-T by the time the show winds up somersaulting along The Great White Way. (An obvious fix-up may not really be a pre-requisite as Ghost: The Musical, a stinker in London, is soon to bow on Broadway).

But while I was happy to see the ovation others bestowed upon it--and even joined in out of respect--at this point I cannot figuratively stand and cheer for Bring It On, nor if I had any, wave my pom poms. And I didn't even mention the dancing Leprechaun number, which though more oddball than awful, spurred me to think, "Toto, I don't think we're in South Pacific anymore."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Who gives a fuck about being "South Pacific" in 2012?