Everybody remembers the film Bring It On, with those passionate, air-headed cheerleaders who were “sexy, cute, popular to boot.” Now, 11 years later, America is still celebrating this pop cultural phenomenon with Bring It On: The Musical.
Don’t go to this production expecting the same scenarios, or characters nearly as endearing. Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) writes the story of Campbell (Taylor Louderman), a die-hard cheerleader at Truman High who is suddenly redistricted to the less glamorous Jackson High.
Jackson High is the popping, locking and dropping inferior to Truman. Past the metal detector and security guard is a world of hip-hop flavor and — gasp! — exposed ceiling rafters. There are no cheer squads at Jackson, only “crews.” The lone white students are the victims of redistricting — specifically Campbell and Bridget (Ryann Redmond).
Louderman as Campbell is a singing-dancing double threat. But when Campbell tells a big lie to convince Truman students to compete in a cheerleading competition, Louderman doesn’t convince the audience her Campbell is sneaky enough to execute such a plan.
“Being a cheerleader is like being a marine,” Campbell says at the show’s beginning. “You signed your life away.”
Her genuinely cheery disposition, hardly ever faltering, makes it hard to believe her.
The conniving but well-intentioned nature of Kirsten Dunst in the film Bring It On provided the material with an interesting dynamic. Multi-dimensional characters, however, are mostly absent on this stage.
Skylar (Kate Rockwell) is a scathing cheerleader plucked right out of Mean Girls. The cross-dressing La Cienega (Gregory Haney) seems like a cast-off from an old production of Rent.
Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and Amanda Green created the music and lyrics. The first strong song of the show is “Do Your Own Thing,” a Jackson High hip-hop ode to individuality. The song plays up every stereotype in the books but simultaneously avoids antiquated, one-note class and race jokes.
Much like “Do Your Own Thing,” “It’s All Happening” is a classic Broadway number peppered with some intense dance and rap showcases. The Act Two opener, in which the Jackson squad prepares for nationals, represents the team at its best.
But once the highs of these numbers end, it becomes painfully clear the show is on the road to nowhere.
Instead of exploring class warfare or racial segregation, the ideas the production starts with, the story sticks to a theme of individuality — a choice conflicting with the stock quality of the characters.
Oh, yes, Bring It On also portrays a requisite love story between Campbell and Randall (the underused Jason Gotay), but that’s a plot point tossed aside so quickly you’ll probably forget about it, too.
With the constant messages of being true to oneself, the trite romance and the generic characters, Bring It On might start to feel familiar. This is a Disney Channel original movie brought to the stage.
Boasting the acclaimed minds behind Avenue Q, Next to Normal and In the Heights should work in Bring It On’s favor. Upon premiering, critics widely heralded these productions as musical game-changers, definers of a modern Broadway pantheon. So one enters Bring It On with the wariness of knowing the fluffy source material but confident of the depth Whitty, Kitt and Miranda can bring.
These expectations make the toothless production especially disappointing.
At the show’s end, during Jackson’s nationals routine, the squad pulls out all the stops — pyramids, break-dances, cheerleaders thrust high into the air. But the audience responds with less oohs and ahs than they did during Act One. The reality kicks in that the spectacle means very little without emotional payoffs.
Nonetheless, set designer David Korns deserves hefty accolades. His Jumbotron separates into four screens and provides the basis for nearly every set.
The set’s simplicity serves as a perfect balance for the production’s chaotic choreography. Whether counting down the minutes until the show, or displaying digital images in an abstract interpretation of Campbell’s bedroom, the use of the screens is refreshingly original.
Despite all the criticism, Bring It On is still a thoroughly engaging, often amusing piece of theater. It’s hardly a good musical given the talent behind it, although it can be a heck of a good time. Even the ensemble of actors have a contagious amount of energy.
But to provide a compliment as backhanded as one from the queen-bee Skylar: It’s a feat in itself that a show so full of fun can ultimately feel so empty.
Bring It On is playing at the Ahmanson Theater until Dec. 10.