Saturday, December 17, 2011

Girls On Top

When Dreamgirls opened on Broadway in 1981, audiences were thrilled by the dancing light towers that were a key element in Robin Wagner's set design (and that were used to brilliant effect by director/choreographer Michael Bennett). The 2010 revival of Dreamgirls (also designed by Wagner) made such spectacular use of Howard Werner/Lightswitch's computerized multimedia effects that the show's original Broadway production looked downright primitive and almost geriatric by comparison.

Some producers like to get their opening night audience in a receptive mood by plying them with free wine. Although the opening night of Bring It On obviously had several cheerleading teams in the auditorium, their excited screams were not what set the tone for the evening. That task was neatly accomplished (and smoothly guaranteed) by two angled digital signboards performing an electronic countdown to the beginning of the show.

With the help of set designer David Korins, lighting designer Jason Lyons, and video designer Jeff Sugg, director/choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler has been able to give this production a fluidity that is rarely seen onstage. With four digital signboards that can travel horizontally, vertically, and rotate around a vertical axis while screening pre-programmed visuals, the creative team for Bring It On has found a way to make the physical production as agile and mobile as their dancers.

It's been a long time since I enjoyed a new musical quite as much as Bring It On, which opened this week at the Orpheum Theatre as part of an extended pre-Broadway tour. With a sassy libretto by Jeff Whitty and a songwriting team that includes Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tom Kitt, and Amanda Green, Blankenbuehler has fashioned a spectacle whose exceptionally high levels of energy keep audiences rooting for the dancers and cheerleaders (as opposed to their opposing schools).

Bring It On received its world premiere in January 2011 in Atlanta at the Alliance Theater (which launched Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida and the musical version of The Color Purple).  It has clearly been designed to reflect a teenager's experience strictly from an adolescent perspective. Unlike Wicked, Billy Elliot the Musical, The Tap Dance Kid, Oliver!, Annie, and other "family entertainment" musicals, there isn't a single major character in Bring It On who represents an adult authority figure.

Bridget (Ryann Redmond) gets some advice from Campbell
(Taylor Louderman) in Bring It On (Photo by: Craig Schwartz)

Not only do the four moving signboards combine with the show's cheerleading stunts to give an extra sense of verticality to the production, each time a major stunt gets set up onstage, its energetic, high-spirited execution resembles the frenzied, frequent ejaculatory releases of male teenagers that can be appreciated by audiences of all ages and genders.

The cheerleading squad from Truman High School in
Bring It On: The Musical (Photo by: Craig Schwartz)

The show begins at the very white Truman High School, whose students include:
Taylor Louderman and Elle McLemore in a scene from
Bring It On: The Musical (Photo by: Craig Schwartz)

Campbell's cozy little world would seem ideal for a teenage girl until her hopes and dreams are shattered. Suddenly, and quite bizarrely, the school board enacts a redistricting plan which sends Campbell and Bridget to a school for lower-income kids that doesn't even have a cheerleading squad. It does, however, have a much more diverse student body with an established social pecking order. Among the students at  Jackson High are:
  • Danielle (Adrienne Warren), a sexy young black woman who, in addition to heading up her school's top hip-hop dance crew, has a part-time job at the local mall's Burger Pagoda.
  • Nautica (Ariana Debose), one of Danielle's closest friends and a member of her crew
  • La Cienega (Gregory Haney), a sassy black drag queen who is also a member of Danielle's crew.
  • Randall (Jason Gotay), a sweet and lanky Caucasian who finds a perverse joy in his ability to leave Campbell speechless.
  • Twig (Nicolas Womack), a horny Hispanic rapper and sweet chubby chaser who is attracted to Bridget because she has an extra load of "junk in her trunk."
Nicolas Womack as Twig in Bring It On: The Musical
(Photo by: Craig Schwartz)

Much like Glee, Bring It On shows high school students as they are, rather than as they are idealized. The show's clear message is that the key to success lies in building confidence instead of begging for others to accept you. As a result:
  • Bridget (the fat girl who was scorned but tolerated by a crowd of mean and petty cheerleaders at Truman) finds a different level of acceptance at Jackson that does wonders for her self esteem.
  • Twig helps the other male students at Jackson learn that it's all right to be attracted to a hefty woman.
  • Campbell, who has always operated from a position of white privilege, gets numerous lessons in humility (I love the moment when she asks the black drag queen how he could possibly know what it's like to feel as if you'll never fit in with everyone else).
Gregory Haney as La Cienega in Bring It On: The Musical 
(Photo by: Craig Schwartz)

When Jerome Robbins was rehearsing the cast of West Side Story for its 1957 premiere, he insisted that the actors playing the Sharks and the Jets not socialize with members of the opposing gang offstage in order to keep the intensity of their rivalry real onstage. Although the score to Bring It On may sound as if it is through-composed (no song list appears in the program), there were actually two different songwriting teams involved in the production. In the following clip from the Alliance Theater's world premiere production, they discuss the challenges of merging the musical identities of two competing high schools.

There is no doubt in my mind that Bring It On will be a commercial success. After all, this show is about teenagers living their own lives and finding their own solutions to their problems. The fact that all the characters are teenagers may prove to be a blessing in disguise for the show's producers:
  • There is no need to depend on a celebrity's name recognition to boost box office sales.
  • Just as Cirque du Soleil has developed a new audition channel through which gymnasts, contortionists, and clowns can find professional employment, there will be plenty of cheerleading talent eager to audition for future slots in resident or touring companies of Bring It On.
  • As a result, there will be little need to worry about finding replacements if and when a performer leaves the show.

Some critics have dismissed Bring It On as a piece of shallow fluff that should not be considered as a solid evening of musical theatre. They may not understand what the future holds for this show.

The version of Bring It On that I saw is in much better shape than many other musicals I've seen during their out-of-town tryouts. That list includes Jerry Herman's Dear World and Mack and Mabel, Stephen Schwartz's Wicked and The Baker's Wife, Stephen Sondheim's Follies, Jule Styne's Prettybelle and Lorelei, Kander & Ebb's The Act, George Fischoff's Georgy, Ervin Drake's Her First Roman, and David Bryan's Memphis.

Following the show's San Francisco run, Bring It On is booked through June 3 on a tour that takes the production to Denver, Houston, Fayetteville, Dallas, Des Moines, Chicago, St. Louis, Charlotte, Durham, Providence, and Toronto. Not only does that give the creative team time to do any necessary tightening, it helps the producer's recoup a sizable part of their investment. The long tour will also help to build roots and test the show before audiences in areas where cheerleading is a critical factor in the lives of teenage girls.

Bring It On's story line rests on the kind of empowering female friendships and messages of tolerance that fueled Wicked's popularity and helped the 2003 Stephen Schwartz blockbuster to become the show that teenage girls simply had to see (many have returned to see the show multiple times). But the producers of Bring It On have a clear path to box office gold that most other musicals lack: The force which drives longevity for most Broadway shows is group sales.

Adrienne Warren, Taylor Louderman, and Elle McLemore in
Bring It On: The Musical (Photo by: Craig Schwartz)
  • By the time Bring It On reaches New York, Wicked will be close to celebrating its tenth anniversary on Broadway. 
  • Each year brings a new wave of cheerleaders to high schools throughout America. 
  • Whether or not they have seen the 2000 film of Bring It On (or any of the other films in the franchise), millions of current and future adolescents have become loyal Gleetards whose parents will be looking for a new Broadway show with which to entertain the family.
  • While Bring It On should have no trouble attracting adult theatre parties or tourists visiting New York, it can easily tap into the well-organized social networks of cheerleading teams, sorority alumni, and former cheerleaders whose daughters are about to wave their first pompoms. (It's interesting to note that the producers are using their standalone website as the gateway to Bring It On's full online marketing presence on Facebook).
  • Each time a high school sports team travels to New York with its cheerleaders, there will probably be a group sales package available for its school to use as a fundraising tool. 
  • Because cheerleading is hardly unique to the United States, foreign productions will prove to be lucrative franchises (just as they have been for shows like Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, and Avenue Q). I fully expect there to be productions in London, Tokyo, Australia and Germany.
  • Because much of the scenic and lighting designs for Bring It On can be digitally reproduced for other productions, there is very little physical scenery needed for the show (the staging require any turntables or trapdoors).
The result is a highly marketable, easy-to-replicate phenomenon. Ka-ching!

Danielle (Adrienne Warren) leads the students at Jackson High School
 in a scene from Bring It On: The Musical  (Photo by: Craig Schwartz)

I especially enjoyed the performances by Nicolas Womack (Twig), Ryann Redmond (Bridget), Kate Rockwell (Skylar), and Gregory Haney (La Cienega). You will, too.

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