"This is like everything I love in one place," said the woman behind me at the Alliance Theatre's opening night of Bring It On: The Musical. "It's like a combination of Save the Last Dance, Bring It On and this movie I saw on TV last week: There's Something About Eve? All About Eve?"
Bette Davis' classic backstabbing Broadway melodrama All About Eve does indeed lend a little of its DNA to Bring It On: The Musical. The show's Broadway-caliber creative team delivers an original plot rather than graft musical numbers to the Kirsten Dunst cheerleading comedy that launched a straight-to-DVD franchise. In the program, director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler describes how he, book writer Jeff Whitty and songwriters Tom Kitt, Amanda Green and Lin-Manuel Miranda approached the story: "We knew there had to be a sassy cheerleader who didn't get it, an interracial competition, a diverse musical presence, and be set in high school cheerleading."
Bring It On touches all of those bases, gets its audience absolutely fired up, and seems destined to be a Broadway hit. Blankenbuehler and company pour a tremendous effort into making Bring It On a spectacle while tweaking youthful ambition. The Alliance production provides ample spectacle to be worth the price of a ticket, but was the subject matter really worth all the work?
Perky and tireless Amanda Lea LaVernge plays Campbell, a rising high school senior whose greatest ambition — at first — is to captain her squad to victory at the National Cheerleader Championships. She sings the title song, "Bring It On," for her last day of junior year, and at one point some goth kids dismiss cheerleaders for "standing around looking pretty." The show shuts down such naysayers through lyrics like "We work our butts off and our nuts off to bring honor to this school."
Campbell's inner circle includes her frenemy Skylar (Kate Rockwell), a perfect cliché of a mean, self-absorbed alpha female. Campbell also finds a protégé in Eva (Kelly Felthous), a hard-working sophomore who sings about her longtime admiration of her older role model in "The Girl in the Stands." Whitty's dialogue tries very, very hard to make the teen characters speak with hip humor, but lines such as "I'm outta here like Bitchzilla on a plane to Tokyo" sound like the output of some kind of Youthspeak computer program. Similarly, the show wrings every last drop of mileage from the comedy of unlikely white kids using hip-hop slang.
For about half an hour, Bring It On addresses practically nothing but the greatness of cheerleaders in general, and Campbell in particular. In fairness, the writers have to plant plenty of narrative seeds to harvest later in the play. Nevertheless, the first section features enough tunes about the last day of junior year, cheerleader tryouts and cheer camp that I wrote in my notes, "Is this ALL that this show's about?"
The real conflict finally kicks in when a suspicious redistricting glitch sends Campbell to spend her senior year at Jackson, a more diverse, less affluent school with an ominous metal detector and no cheerleading program. Instead, Jackson has a hip-hop dance crew led by Danielle (Adrienne Warren), who's every bit as intimidating as Skylar, but far more open-minded. Once Campbell sets foot in Jackson, Bring It On flourishes with exciting, hip-hop inspired musical numbers. As Twig, Jon Rua demonstrates some hilarious, tongue-twisting rap skills that bring to mind the Beastie Boys.
Campbell earns Danielle's respect through the irresistible spectacle of dancing at a party while wearing an oversized leprechaun costume. Near the end of Act One, Campbell discovers she's been double-crossed by one of her former squadmates, leading to angry "Bring It On" reprise. Between the fierce, militant moves and the dancers' black costumes, the number evokes Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" video. The second part hinges on how far Campbell will go to drive her Jackson friends to the Nationals, and whether she'll take stock of her own misplaced values. In one of the final numbers, Campbell and her teammates literally step "outside the box" in a dramatic statement about nonconformity that could use more development in the script.
Some of the pleasant, unmemorable songs affixed to the romantic subplots slow down the action. Nick Blaemire winningly croons the platitudinous "Might as Well Enjoy the Trip" to pluck up Campbell's spirits during her Act Two low point. Bring It On's breakout star is Adrienne Warren, who emerges as a feral force of nature in tunes such as "The Huddle," but adorably teared up during the opening night curtain call.
If Bring It On worries too much about how much we respect cheerleaders, it clearly subscribes to its protagonists' work ethic. Blankenbuehler and his huge cast of dancers commit to a striking level of complexity, athleticism and precision in their work. Audiences will gasp when the performers send young ladies vaulting into the air and then catch them — especially given the recent reports of onstage injuries on Broadway at the Spider-Man musical.
To compare to Bring It On to the Alliance Theatre's other would-be Broadway movie adaptations, the new play delivers far more thrills than the modest comedy of Sister Act, but looks wispy and forgettable alongside The Color Purple. Blankenbuehler and the production put a ton of work into a colorful trifle, but as the cheerleaders might say: "Two, four, six eight — it's work we can appreciate!"