In the 2000 film comedy Bring It On, a high-school cheerleader at a competition tells one of her airhead squad mates that the judges "give extra points for alacrity and effulgence." The other girl, clueless, replies, "Did we bring those?"
Not a problem, as far as Bring It On: The Musical is concerned. There's alacrity and effulgence aplenty in this winning ode to teen spirit, which was inspired by the movie and its direct-to-DVD sequels. There's also a fair amount of vacuity – but hey, nobody expects a show about cheerleading to tax the brain.
When you enter the Ed Mirvish Theatre (formerly the Canon) – where Bring It On is playing the Toronto leg of its national tour – turn off your grey cells and just let your eyes be wowed by the sight of spry young bodies executing awesome back handsprings, human pyramids and mid-air twirls. Your ears, meanwhile, will be treated to the musical-theatre version of a mix tape, packed with pop, hip hop, R&B and soul, plus a few rousing chants in the time-honoured cheerleading tradition.
But I don't want to suggest this is just a glorified half-time act. There's a story of sorts, too. The show's producers have tossed away Jessica Bendinger's original screenplay – no great loss – and replaced it with a book and songs by some of Broadway's best and brightest. Avenue Q's Jeff Whitty provides the script, Tom Kitt ( Next to Normal) and Lin-Manuel Miranda ( In the Heights) contribute the music, and Miranda and Amanda Green supply the lyrics.
Not surprisingly, these Tony Award-winning talents have good fun with the high-school genre. Whitty's libretto is, indeed, witty, with whiplash dialogue and a plot cheerfully borrowed from All About Eve via Single White Female, with a little bit of Mean Girls on the side. The musical numbers, meanwhile, draw on Miranda's facility with rap and Green's hip sense of humour. Even the inspirational ballads are funny.
The culture clash merely suggested in the movie is now the central theme. Campbell (Taylor Louderman), our peppy blond heroine, is about to enter her senior year at rich, white Truman High as captain of the Truman Buccaneers cheerleading squad. But then a redrawing of the school's catchment area forces her to enroll at tough, inner-city Jackson High instead. Jackson doesn't have a cheerleading squad, but a street-dance crew, led by Campbell's African-American counterpart, the fierce Danielle (Adrienne Warren).
Privileged Campbell suddenly has to prove her worth to get into the crew and be accepted. Meanwhile, back at Truman, it turns out Eva (Elle McLemore), Campbell's obsequious protégé, is really a conniving backstabber who arranged Campbell's transfer so she could take over the Buccaneers' squad. When Campbell learns she has been betrayed, she convinces Danielle to turn her crew into cheerleaders so they can beat Eva's squad at the upcoming nationals.
Comparisons with TV's Glee are inevitable, both in the show's self-aware comedy and in its obligatory freaks and geeks. These include Bridget (Ryann Redmond), Campbell's overweight sidekick, who talks like a pop psychologist; and Danielle's BF, La Cienega (Gregory Haney), an imposing black transvestite. The lovably lumpy Redmond is a particular audience favourite, but all the young actor/singers are spot-on in their roles. If there's a showstopper, it's McLemore's performance of the second-act Killer Instinct, in which her delightfully evil Eva reveals her nefarious plot for cheerleading domination.
The show is directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, another Tony winner – for his choreography of In the Heights. Here, he revisits that musical's high-energy hip hop, sprinkling some welcome urban dirt into what might otherwise be a squeaky-clean display of gymnastic prowess. For the more athletic feats, he has cast actual cheerleaders and gymnasts in the ensemble. There are times, though, when you wish he'd go further in exploring the juncture of cheerleading and street dance.
David Korins's mobile set and Jason Lyons's showy lighting earn those extra points for alacrity and effulgence. Korins combines elements of a sports coliseum with those of a high school – including ever-shifting rows of lockers that serve a variety of purposes. Jeff Sugg enhances the scenes with video backdrops, which appear on descending screens that look like mini JumboTrons.
Like a great cheerleading routine, Bring It On gets its audience fired up. But when you step out of the Ed Mirvish and switch your brain back on, you'll feel like you've just consumed the theatrical equivalent of candy floss. This show is light, sweet and totally insubstantial.
Bring It On runs until June 3.
Bring It On: The Musical
- Libretto by Jeff Whitty
- Music by Tom Kitt and Lin-Manuel Miranda
- Lyrics by Amanda Green and Lin-Manuel Miranda
- Directed by Andy Blankenbuehler
- Starring Taylor Louderman and Adrienne Warren
- At the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto
- 3 stars