For "Bring It On," the very promising and belatedly affecting new cheerleader musical in progress, to succeed on Broadway next season, here's what will have to happen, pronto. The show will have to understand that, right from the start, it must live much closer to the world of the TV show "Friday Night Lights," albeit with an inner-city soul, and run a million miles away from "Legally Blonde" and everything even remotely pink.
Bring on the paint cans immediately, say I, and spray away (along with all the truly toxic pink) all those lame cheerleader gags, snappy one-liners in the hackneyed, played-out "Clueless" and "Mean Girls" modes, and all the other campery and frippery that bog down at least the first 25 percent of this show, an opening quarter that is, to put it frankly, so bad that it nearly chokes the entire evening. Read on, though, for the show recovers, remarkably, like a wounded cheerleader determined to rise again.
The problems at Wednesday night's midtour Chicago opening began with a choppy recitative from composers Tom Kitt ("Next to Normal") and Lin-Manuel Miranda, when we really need a genuinely exciting opening number that conveys the rush and thrill of cheerleading. Yes, cheerleading. For the source movie is about that gender-conservative, Type A-friendly art that show-geek Broadway types view with a certain, well-earned lack of comfort that sends them into default, and defensive, parody mode. That must be resisted at all costs by the librettist Jeff Whitty, and all others involved, for it has been played out. Lord, has it been played out. For good or ill, cheerleading is a popular — maybe even a noble — tradition, and this musical only works when it celebrates the formidable athletic skill of this cast and understands the role the activity — maybe even the art — plays in the actual lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary American girls and young women. It must be taken seriously, as it taken seriously by those likely to buy the tickets.
Fans of the 2000 movie (and there are many) will recall that the lively plot involves a cheerleader (here named Campbell and played by the peppy but emotionally flat and thus not very likable Taylor Louderman, who needs to find some vulnerability, fast), cheated out of her competitive glory by a sneaky rival (Eva, played with richer complexity by Elle McLemore) and sent from a whiter-than-white suburban school to a rougher educational establishment in the 'hood, where cheerleading squads aren't in the halls. Just metal detectors.
Once "Bring It On," which is directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, arrives at this second school, Jackson High, which happens well past the middle of the first act (far too late), the show starts to find its feet. Political correctness is thrown away, which is as it should be when a show deals with the reality of high school life, and the show starts talking, and singing, in truths. Blankenbuehler's visual ideas now start making sense and looking fresh. And once the show finally wakes up to what kind of lyrical, melodic, deep-seated composer is actually co-writing the music, Kitt unspools some truly gorgeous melodies. Miranda's rapping lyrics and song stylings kick in — the previous stuff at the white school is strictly throwaway, like the one-dimensional white characters — and you find yourself caring greatly about spunky Danielle (the excellent Adrienne Warren) and the other multicultural Jackson students who prefer to be part of a crew than a squad.
Now that Kitt, who shares composing credit with Miranda (it's not entirely clear who wrote what, but one can guess), has found his way into the show, he unleashes a slew of terrific songs, including the spectacular "It's All Happening" (which really should end the first act), the powerful "It Ain't No Thing" and the witty "Might As Well Enjoy the Trip." Miranda's lyrics (he shares credit with Amanda Green) suddenly get very funny, even coupling Bristol Palin with Genghis Kahn as examples of the world's great opportunists. Truly, in the second act, Kitt and/or Miranda's work is fabulous: You should hear the unnecessarily provocative chords unleashed under "Eva's Rant." The boffo climatic number "Cross the Line," wherein the Jackson kids get to self-actualize and say their free-form piece to the too-white world, is equally rich and emotionally potent (several of the character roles in this show are terrifically played, including Gregory Haney as the unusual cheerleader La Cienega, Ryann Redmond as the geeky Bridget, the big girl who breaks free of playing the mascot, and Jason Gotay as love interest Randall, a character whose sung confession of the pain of his youth is wonderful, thanks as much to the warm-centered Gotay as the authors).
In Act 2, the initially quiet audience gets totally with this motley Jackson crew. If only they were not fighting against cliches, we'd really be invested in their battle with the other kind of cheerleaders, a clan that "Bring It On" has yet to explore with honesty. It's telling that we don't see the other team do their routine in the competition that closes the show, even though we clearly should, for the thrill of competition to climax. The show just does not know how to show us their beating, complacent hearts. Even though it must.
This young, huge cast does remarkably athletic feats on the stage of the Cadillac Palace Theatre, which any cheerleading person in your life would surely enjoy, especially given the way their field takes center stage, there being no focus-pulling athletes in the way. Frankly, the show could stand more routines. Just as to witness a Twyla Tharp show is to feel in awe of what human bodies (other than one's own) can do, so this show needs to showcase what its cast can do. "Bring It On" need fear the trite, the obvious and most surely the pink, but not the great, all-American cheer and the power of a passionate high-school memory. There, "Bring it On" is on terra firma.
When: Through March 25
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $18-$85 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com