The national tour of Bring It On, which played the Shubert this past week, was so brand new that there are no official photos of it yet. (And, of course, “the use of cameras and recording devices inside the theater is strictly prohibited.”) So imagine this:
Uniformed dancers in short stripey skirts doing high flips off the outstretched hands of muscular cast mates.. A large digital projection screen that provides changing backdrops for this high school saga, and also makes a handy post for measuring how high these cheerleaders are flying in the air. Triple back-flips across the stage, at the drop of a pompom. Dialogue that ranges from too-cool-for-school to high screeching wails of youthful exasperation. A couple of dozen dancers filling the Shubert stage, kicking and thrusting and popping and locking just inches from each other, threatening to become a Pilobolus clingfest.
It’s a very human energy, one that may be diffused a bit when the show hits much larger theaters in other cities. The tour does have sets and props—rows of gym lockers are upended to become dance ramps, and a teen bedroom set-up becomes (without changing a thing) another teen’s bedroom set-up. But it’s the jumping and flipping that keep your attention. Many of the songs are simply plot-propelling set-ups for the dance routines, but there are some lovely stand-alone ballads (“One Perfect Moment”) and empowerment anthems (“Do Your Own Thing”) in the mix.
Bring It On, derived from the multi-culti cheerleader movie series, was originally developed at a regional theater, the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, and toured for half a year before landing on Broadway for four months in 2012. This new tour, which travels around the U.S. until May and then flies to Tokyo for the month of July, was informed by changes made when the show was on Broadway.
New Haven had a hand in implementing those changes. The Bring It On tour may have only had four public performances at the Shubert, but the cast and crew have been in town for weeks, building and rehearsing the show. It was the latest of several musical theater tours (others include Jersey Boys and Hair) which have taken advantage of the Shubert’s proximity to New York and the theater’s storied history as a place where theatermakers go to make their productions better.
There are other connections that made Bring It On such a nice fit for New Haven.
The Bring It On movies are vaguely realistic. They involve different ethnic communities getting along so they can freshen up their cheerleading routines and win national competition. (The sports they’re cheering for are irrelevant; this is about the cheerleaders and their own artistry.) Though the show is set on the West Coast, New Haven’s diverse high school population (including that of Coop High School, half a block from the Shubert) could certainly relate to Bring It On’s bringing-us-all-together attitude. It’s a show about pride and friendship and acceptance and creative collaboration.
But Bring It On: The Musical is much sillier than the five movies which spawned it. It’s much more theatrical. Its lessons of respect and compromise come from an outrageously over-the-top scenario, one which is cribbed directly from the Broadway-set movie classic All About Eve. In the musical, a girl (named Eva!) lies, cheats and steals to take the place of her mentor Campbell, who’s the captain of the cheerleading squad of Truman High School.
In an extraordinary coincidence, All About Eve was the featured movie at Criterion Cinema’s “Movies & Mimosas” series last weekend, while Bring It On was kicking up its heels at the Shubert just a block away. The Shubert, and the city of New Haven make important appearances in All About Eve. Near the end of the movie (made in 1950), its lead characters find themselves at the Shubert, where the theater show they are doing is getting a pre-Broadway out-of-town try-out. How fitting that a modern All About Eve pastiche would be building its post-Broadway tour here.
All this is pleasant background noise for a pleasant, well-intentioned show.
Face it, this is a great idea for a stage musical. Pissed-off teenagers strutting about a stage, then bursting into elaborate dance routines that spring naturally from the same high-school cheer-culture that fuels the competition-based plot.
A dream team of modern musical theater writers and composers rallied to make Bring It On happen: Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Wesleyan grad who created In the Heights and helped rework the recent more-Latino Broadway revival of West Side Story; Tom Kitt and Amanda Green, who’d adapted Nick Hornby’s hipster novel High Fidelity into a musical; and Jeff Whitty, who wrote the script for Avenue Q. Their resumes aren’t entirely sweetness and light ((Kitt composed the downer musical Next to Normal; Whitty made a musical out of the multi-toned serial novel Tales of the City), but they’re having crazy fun here, preaching respect and community while indulging in over-the-top youth-in-turmoil scenarios.
The dialogue can get goofy (“No cheerleading squad?!,” Campbell asks incredulously when she’s transferred to street-savvy Jackson High; “What’s the point of having a school?!”). But it was a good idea to lighten up Bring It On, making it more like Hairspray and Bye Bye Birdie than like West Side Story or Spring Awakening. Somehow the messages of striving for unity and overcoming adversity aren’t upbraided by all the show’s lunacy and frivolity.
Bring It On had a limited New York run, but its tour is likely to stir up interest nationwide. When New Haven sees Bring It On again, it’ll likely be as non-professional productions in the very sorts of high schools which inspired it.