Adrienne Warren in “Bring It On,” at the St. James through October 7 only. | JOAN MARCUS
With powerhouse moves, an appealing and highly talented cast, and a surprisingly witty book and lyrics, “Bring It On,” a new musical, has transformed the St. James into a rollicking pep rally. Resistance, as they say, is futile. The show, which has been touring around the country, has touched down for a couple of months on Broadway, and it’s pure escapist entertainment.
In today’s increasingly niche-driven entertainment market, the show is directed squarely at kids and young adults — an audience often under-served on Broadway. At the same time, it won’t insult the intelligence of a more seasoned theatergoer whose heart still leaps at vocal and choreographic pyrotechnics — and who is, from time to time, a sucker for easy, musical comedy-style emotion.
The story is based on the movie of the same name and tells the story of a would-be star cheerleader who has to learn the true meaning of competition and friendship. Truman High cheerleading captain Campbell gets redistricted to inner-city Jackson High, thanks to a manipulation by her anything-to-win, arch-rival Eva. Jackson doesn’t have a cheerleading squad, but they have a hip-hop crew led by super-sassy Danielle. The ups and downs of high school life and the conflicts and the resolutions that end up with mean girls ostracized and BFF’s bonded, like, forever are the kind of plotting you’d expect from a formulaic story from this genre.
However, book writer Jeff Whitty has given the characters a little more depth than off-the-shelf stereotypes, and the jokes are solid and often more sophisticated than one usually gets in this kind of thing, while keeping a contemporary high school sensibility. He’s also structured the book like a classic musical comedy with romantic leads, secondary comics, and an ensemble of quirky characters, including La Cienega, a transgender student. The music by Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda has a contemporary sound, and while there is no shortage of power ballads delivered at full belt, there are a couple of quieter songs that reveal character, particularly in the second act. The lyrics by Miranda and Amanda Green also have an appealing edge and wit.
Director and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler keeps the shifting scenes between the two high schools fluid and clear, but it is his choreography that is really the standout. Naturally, the cheerleading routines are gasp-inducing feats of physical prowess, but the other numbers offer impressive classically inspired moves that complement the acrobatics.
Of course, none of this would work without the amped up performances of the young and nimble cast. Taylor Louderman does an excellent job as Campbell, both singing and dancing. Ryann Redmond is the awkward second lead who, ostracized and forced to be the mascot at Truman High, finds she’s popular and attractive when she too is redistricted to Jackson. Jason Gotay is appealing as Campbell’s new Jackson boyfriend Randall, and Gregory Haney turns in a fine performance as La Cienega, who to Haney and the creators’ credit feels real and is not a cartoon.
Elle McLemore as the scheming Eva is outstanding, reminiscent of a young Kristin Chenoweth effortlessly blending comedy and villainy. The standout performance of the evening, though, is Adrienne Warren as Danielle. As a black girl trying to get out of Jackson and into college, she is wholly believable and often touching — and her singing is out of this world.
Does the story end up a little too easily or predictably? Sure. Are the characters revelations and transformations a little sudden? Undoubtedly. Yet to criticize that is to indict the vast majority of musical comedy. “Bring It On” may not have a score we’ll be singing in 20 years (though I’m betting we may hear some of the songs on vocal competition shows), but it’s very much a show for contemporary musical and dance sensibilities that still has its roots in classic musicals. And if it’s bringing in new audiences while entertaining established ones, then, as the cheerleaders would say, “Score!”
BRING IT ON | St. James Theatre | 246 W. 44th St. | Through Oct. 7 | Mon., Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.: Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | Schedules varies after Sep. 4 |$39-$199; telecharge.com or 212-239-6200