Back in the 1920s and ’30s, musical shows were silly and trivial. Audiences went to them to escape the grim realities of everyday life. Then the musical theater turned earnest. But American culture always has another trick up its sleeve: While the once-frivolous form was cranking up its dark sobriety, its target audience, nurtured by the increasing barrage of the electronic media, became ever more obsessed with trivialities, ever more eager to shove aside the serious matters it needed to confront. Reality? For most Americans, the word now means a genre of TV entertainment.
So now, comically enough, the musical theater can be trivial again, simply by applying its hard-won earnestness of outlook to the inane realities that we silly Americans seem to regard as important. Bring It On (St. James Theatre) perfectly exemplifies the new synthesis: a giddy old-style musical, but with new-style Sunday-school moral lessons tacked all over it, about a teenage girl whose one goal in life is to be captain of a high school cheerleading squad. We could be back in 1926, with the heroine of Rodgers & Hart’s The Girl Friend helping her beau train for the six-day bicycle race, except that the audience at the St. James is jammed with teenage girls for whom the cheerleader’s championship dream, if not their own, is at least one they can identify with emotionally—and vocally, to gauge by the response at the press performance I attended.
And their vocal seconding of the onstage rabble-rousing has some justification. A sort of Hairspray with backflips, Bring It On expresses its enthusiasm for love and team spirit with epic amounts of leaping and shouting, and repeated breathtaking stunts by human pyramids. Its story, as flimsy as a crepe paper streamer, has the mercy, in Jeff Whitty’s often sassy script, of tossing an occasional self-aware dart at its own inanity. Its score, by Lin-Manuel Miranda and the team of Amanda Green and Tom Kitt, has a steady skillful amiability, rather than any great distinction, as it shifts from rock to hip-hop to items more like standard-issue show music. But this musical moderateness, in never venturing to the raw edges of the idioms it employs, is its source of wide appeal: This is hip-hop that doesn’t make older adult ears feel bruised. (Which, granted, means it probably isn’t “real” hip-hop, but when were Broadway musicals real anything, except Broadway musicals?)
Campbell (Taylor Louderman), Bring It On‘s heroine, views high school cheerleading as a “life or death” matter. Entering her senior year and about to realize her lifelong goal of captaining the cheer squad, she tells a sophomore trainee who has had a momentary attack of cold feet, “Being a cheerleader is like being a Marine. You signed your life away.” (One wonders how the Marine recruits who constantly shout “Semper Fi” in Dogfight would react to Campbell and her ilk.) But Campbell’s do-or-die path is beset with booby traps. Skylar (Kate Rockwell), her rival for the captaincy, keeps dropping one-liners that undercut her authority. And that seemingly nervous sophomore trainee, Eva (Elle McLemore), turns out to have high-powered connections. Their manipulations get Campbell transferred, through “redistricting,” from clean, complacent, upscale Truman High to Jackson, a school so “tough” that—oh, horror—it doesn’t even have a cheerleading squad.
Campbell starts off badly at Jackson, alienating the school’s queen of cool, Danielle (Adrienne Warren). But nothing worse happens to her, at this school populated largely by blacks and Latinos, unless you count her being nicknamed “Cream of Mushroom.” With the help of another redistrictee, her always-game, chunky gal pal Bridget (a bright, spunky performance by Ryann Redmond), Campbell fights her way into friendship with Danielle, and—after a few more setbacks, each tagged with a tidy moral lesson—even restores cheerleading and school spirit to Jackson.
Like the acrobatic dancers whose incessant somersaulting takes up so much of Andy Blankenbuehler’s production, the moral lessons in Whitty’s script land lightly, minute crunchy moments in the show’s dessert-sweet texture. The young performers throw themselves full-heartedly into the material, as you expect young performers to do, Louderman and Warren coming off particularly well. If David Korins’s set looks more like a rock video with a sci-fi motif than like actual life in American high schools today, the college-football musicals of the 1920s probably looked just as adorably unreal.