As if anyone would be surprised that yet another Lin-Manuel Miranda musical is brightening up London, his collaborative 2011 musical “Bring it On” provides a much-needed jolt of silly fun to this theatre scene. Inspired by that beloved Kirsten Dunst movie with that incredible performance-based ending topped only by that of “Center Stage” in all of cinematic history, “Bring it On” looks into the world of competitive high school cheerleading while trying to tackle racism, bullies, friendship, teenage romance, accepting yourself, growing up, and fitting in. Does it succeed in doing all that? God no! Is this show insanely enjoyable and entertaining and will you have a huge smile on your face (most of the time) even though it’s overreaching with the sentimentality? Hell yes!
So “Bring it On” has quite the creative team behind it – Lin-Manuel, Tom Kitt (‘Next to Normal’), Amanda Green (‘Hands on a Hardbody’ (shoutout to my bff Keala)) all worked on the score, while Jeff Whitty (‘Avenue Q’) wrote the book. Surprisingly, because it happens so rarely, I was delighted by Whitty’s book. My delight was mainly because I didn’t know how different it would be from the movie (the original movie, obviously; it’s apparently similar to one of the sequels but I don’t mess with no direct-to-video nonsense). Diverging from the familiar plot was a really smart move, leaving less to directly compare with the movie. Instead of Eliza Dushku taking a vampire-slaying break to rag on Kirsten Dunst about how bad her breath is while Gabrielle Union just like…is perfect, we have Campbell (Robyn McIntyre (lots of y’s you go girl)), the Dunst-like character – the white, rich, preppy head cheerleader – transferred from white, rich, preppy Truman High to the inner city school like the one repped by Union in the movie. At Jackson High, Campbell sticks out and has trouble finding her groove (probably because she’s white), especially since there is no cheerleading squad! Egads and oh no! The cool af black girl in the stage version is named Danielle (Chisara Agor), and instead of leading a rival, incredible cheerleading squad backed up by literally the three members of R&B girl group Blaque (true story), Danielle leads the school’s dance crew, which, by the looks of it, is just her and her two friends. Those friends are pretty cool though – one is named Nautica and is confident and badass, and the other is La Cienaga, which was Broadway’s first trans character (played by Gregory Haney in the og, and here by Matthew Brazier, and it’s awesome to have this, but I can’t wait for when trans characters are actually played by trans people).
Campbell tries to convince Danielle’s crew to become a cheerleading squad so they can beat her old school at Nationals. There was so much mention of Nationals and Regionals that sometimes it was like watching an episode of “Glee” (which was in the height(s) of its popularity when this was written, to be fair, and probably was a cheeky reference to it). The only other person transferred along with Campbell from Truman is Bridget, her Quirky Fat Friend™ who was Truman High’s poor pathetic mascot but who is suddenly considered cool at Jackson. Bridget might be written as that typical QFF™ whose main characteristics are Q and F, but as played by Kristine Kruse she is a hoot and gets some of the best material in the show. Campbell’s old friends at Truman fare well too, as the white rich Mean Girls-like trio of Skylar, Kylar (it’s explained), and Eva are all given a good chunk of material and humor to work with, and they’re super entertaining, although I wish we saw more of Eva’s future when she becomes Betsy Devos. As is common, the main characters are written generically in order to further the story, while the side characters get to have more personality.
As for the score, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been listening to it during all of my runs this week. It is FIRE. Well, it is FIRE SOMETIMES. The big ensemble numbers, the up-tempo ones, are clearly the work of Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose signature Latin influenced urban flavor shines through, and at certain points I could hear suggestions of “It Won’t Be Long Now” and “Blackout” from “In the Heights”. However, it takes a bit for the score to hit its stride, mainly because there are too many ballads and none of them are memorable or really anything special. Things only really get moving when the action moves over to Jackson High with Campbell’s transfer, when Lin’s signature rhythm and hip-hop sensibilities could let loose. The introductory Jackson song, “Do Your Own Thing”, is the best song in the score and I challenge you to listen to it without getting severely pumped up. I cracked up in this song when Campbell is introduced and a boy goes, “Campbell like the soup? You lookin’ hot cream of mushroom!’ And I adore Bridget’s track in this number, when she counters the chorus of “Don’t follow me/do your own thing” with a super optimistic “Don’t follow anybody! Everyone here does their own thing”. I love it. Of course, my favorite sung lyric was clearly the work of Lin in “It’s All Happening”, when a boy says to his friends, “What, you think cheering is feminine? Then I’m a feminist swimming in women, gentlemen.” There’s so much humor in the score and book, and the cast hit all the comic points well.
I feel the need to temper all my excitement about this show, though, because, like, it’s not exactly a great show. It’s so much fun and has such good energy, but the bones of it have some osteo probs. Along with the mostly clichéd attempts to be introspective in the ballads (ugh so many), there were a few weak spots in the plot too, like how on earth a teenage girl could blackmail her mother but not elicit suspicion from the rest of the school board? And I hate to say it, but a school like this considering La Cienaga one of the most popular people in school? I wish that were realistic (and because of that I see the need to present it as such; it's just not believable). The spirit stick/cheer camp bit in the beginning whooshed past us, and if I didn’t remember that they did such a thing in the movie I would have been as confused as Husbo at what exactly was happening. I didn’t buy the relationship between Campbell and her new boyf, Randall, at all, but that could be because their duet made me saaaad. And not because it tugged at my heartstrings or anything like that, but because it was baaaad. Not their singing, just the actual song is quite hackneyed, about how you have to enjoy high school for what it is because it goes by so fast. Guhhhh. If you cut that and a few other reprises of Campbell’s “I Want” song, it would be a much tighter show. (Not that Robyn doesn't do a superb job essentially carrying this show on her tiny child shoulders; all these slow songs just don't serve her character or the story.) But the biggest thing that needs work is why on earth Danielle et al. would forgive Campbell for lying to her. Their friendship before the rift is not solidified enough to explain why she would bother helping out this new girl again.
I hope they do get to make those changes, upon a transfer to the West End. With more work, a whole lot more money, and more exciting cheer routines, this could be phenomenal as a big production. I had to temper my expectations and hopes and dreams about their final cheer routines, considering this was not a huge-budget Broadway musical with professional gymnasts and acrobats in the cast (although there were clearly a few ringers in there doing most of the tumbling, which I appreciated). (And yes, I did watch the Broadway cast’s performance afterwards to scratch that itch) But even so, this small youth production is more entertaining that it should be, and is a must-see right now in London.
Okay so the Southwark Playhouse is not air-conditioned, and you probably know that London has had a serious heat wave all summer. Everyone was literally dripping in sweat in that small black box theatre (including the cast), and so the fact that I still loved it and recommend it says a lot about how fun it is.
The ushers at my performance need some more training though. They were more distracting that any audience members (hey good job audience though). It was weird.