Confession: I used to be a cheerleader. So when I attended the Broadway Live Series’ opening night performance of Bring It On -- The Musical at the Lexington Opera House, I was jolted by a faint nostalgia for an almost forgotten former life in a surreal collision with my current life, one of immersion in the arts.
Based on the film starring Kirsten Dunst, written by Jessica Bendinger, Bring It On: The Musical follows the travails of high school senior Campbell (Nadia Vynnytsky, who is more likeable and relatable than Dunst in the role). As captain of the Truman High School cheerleading squad, she stands on the cusp of realizing her dream of winning nationals. But when (mild spoiler alert) some back-door conniving leads to her being “redistricted,” Campbell is forced to attend the foreign-to-her Jackson High School, whose ethnically diverse student body doesn’t even have a cheerleading squad. But Campbell aims to change that and ultimately ends up changing her life and others’ in ways they would never have anticipated.
Just a few minutes into the show’s high-octane cheerleading routines, it occurred to me that cheerleading has a lot in common with theater, where every 10 hours of sweat and preparation yields about five seconds of spectacle. Plus, everyone has a role to play. Remove one thread of that collaborative tapestry, and the work comes tumbling down like a shaky pyramid.
For Friday’s performance, Bring It On’s cast and crew were an impressively cohesive team, with music, acting, dancing, plus advanced cheerleading and gymnastics skillfully woven into the show’s technical components, like Jason Lyons’ flashy lighting design and Andrew Lauer’s fun and funky costume design.
Thank goodness the show’s producers tapped real life cheerleading professionals to amp up the show’s authenticity and wow factor, which mightily crescendos in the show’s final act at the national cheerleading championship. I was dreading the prospect of seeing limp, pretend versions of what actors might approximate cheerleading to be, but was delighted by how the show’s large, complicated stunts, twisting basket tosses, and difficult gymnastics (made all the more difficult by being two and a half hours into a physically demanding show) punctuate the onstage drama and triumph of the characters, who are transformed by unlikely friendships forged by sharing work toward a common goal.
The non-cheerleader actors blended seamlessly with the cheering pros, who themselves seemed quite at home on the stage. In fact I had a hard time telling the difference without consulting the program. And while it’s difficult to cite stand-out performances in such a large, cohesive ensemble, favorites included Sharrod Williams’ spirited supporting role as La Cienaga, Emily Mitchell as the back-stabbing Eva, and Maisie Salinger as the self-esteem challenged Bridget.
Aesthetically, the show is probably best described as “cute.” Full of slang and angsty romantic subplots, the show is a lighthearted romp through well-tread territory: the teenage coming of age tale.
The cast overcame many of the trite stereotypes the material is saddled with: the ditzy blond, the dowdy wallflower, among others.
While there was certainly a tangible and important message woven through the show -- that authentic relationships trump shrewd ambition -- it has a levity and naivete that adults might find either an attractive tug on nostalgic heartstrings or an annoying oversimplification of how life really works. I felt both during Friday’s show, emotions which were eclipsed by my sheer guilty-pleasure enjoyment of the cheerleading.