American Spirit: Bring It On at the St. James Theatre and The Last Smoker in America at Westside Theatre

Bring on the cheerleaders, lose the 'Smoker'

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The cast of ‘Bring It On.’ (Courtesy Joan Marcus)

NEITHER THE GIRLS from Truman High School nor those from Jackson would put it quite so prosaically, but: Let’s hear three cheers for Bring It On, the cheerleading musical about those perky kids, “inspired by,” as the Playbill says, the eponymous 2000 cheerleading movie about similarly perky kids.

Or, at least, let’s hear two-and-a-half incredibly enthusiastic cheers.

To call Bring It On, which opened last week at the St. James Theatre, a perfect Broadway musical isn’t fair to those shows that are not only good but also genuinely ambitious, ones that actually aim for perfection on a large scale. But this show, which was first produced in Atlanta early last year and began a national tour in Los Angeles that fall, might well be perfect for what it is—nothing innovative or groundbreaking, no daring story or unexpected character arcs, just a fun, funny, exceedingly well-made, spunkily acted, acrobatically choreographed, silly good time. There is a kind of teen-movie-to-big-musical show I think of as the perfectly good bad musical—Legally
Blonde, say, or Sister Act. Bring It On, instead, is a spectacularly good,
happily mediocre one.

This does not come as a surprise, exactly: Bring It On was put together by an impressive creative team. The book is by Jeff Whitty, who won a Tony for writing Avenue Q; the music is by Tom Kitt, who won the Pulitzer and two Tonys for his music for Next to Normal, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who won the Best Score Tony for In the Heights; and the lyrics are by Amanda Green and Mr. Miranda. And it is directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, who won his Tony for choreographing In the Heights.

The musical, like the movies—there were also four direct-to-video sequels—is set in Southern California, in the high-stakes, highly athletic world of competitive cheerleading. This is no doubt what attracted everyone involved to adapting the property in the first place: its milieu—hormonal teens, complicated dance moves, high-key emotions—is almost ideally conceived for musical theatricality. These are the sorts of kids who, even without a libretto, are liable to burst into song at any moment.

Our heroines, both in the film and onstage, are the wealthy white girls on a perennial powerhouse squad; their rivals are the poorer minority girls struggling at an inner-city high school. But the musical, which gives its characters different (and funnier) names than did the movie—the cheerleaderiest of the cheerleaders is Skylar and her best friend is Kylar; the two sidekicks at the poorer high school are Nautica and La Cienega—also removes the movie’s one point of social commentary. In the movie, the white girls of Rancho Carne High learn that their prizewinning cheer routines have been stolen from the East Compton Clovers; it’s a classic tale of opportunistic white people appropriating black art. In the musical, instead, nice-girl Truman High cheer captain Campbell (Taylor Louderman) is unexpectedly redistricted into the decidedly less posh Jackson High, which—horror of horrors—doesn’t even have a cheerleading team. Naturally she befriends Jackson’s dominant tough girl-with-a-heart-of-gold, Danielle (Adrienne Warren), who leads a dance crew that she transforms into a powerhouse cheer squad.

And so this Bring It On becomes an even more straightforward, inspirational, have-faith-in-yourself, we-can-all-be-friends story—still, it’s a very charming one. There’s even a nice, movie-about-theater touch for this movie-to-theater adaptation: Here, the antagonist is no longer the plagiarizing former cheer chief, but instead Campbell’s conniving young protégée, Eva (Elle McLemore), who is ultimately revealed to have orchestrated Campbell’s transfer and the calamities that befall various other more senior cheerleaders. Eva’s last name isn’t specified, but you have to assume it’s Harrington.

The cast is young and largely unknown, but they’re also largely terrific, eager, attractive and incredibly ingratiating, led by Ms. Louderman in her debut. Ryann Redmond is particularly entertaining as the heavyset Bridget, an outcast at Truman who blossoms at Jackson, and Gregory Haney is fierce as La Cienega, the manly fly girl no one even bothers to mention is transgendered. The music by Messrs. Kitt and Miranda is poppy, peppy and fun, a mix of guitar-driven rock numbers and funk-accented hip-hop to match Mr. Blankenbuehler’s athletic choreography—all those cheer-world lifts and tosses.

But ultimately what makes Bring It On such a success is Mr. Whitty’s warm-hearted, perfectly pitched script. It’s broad-minded, inclusive and empowering, as it has to be. And, even better, it takes itself seriously without taking itself too seriously, and laughs at itself without winking too hard. It’s not heavy-handed, but it’s also not an exercise in camp. “Everyone’s gone through all this, like, personal growth, but I’m exactly the same person I was a year ago,” says the ditzy Skylar near the show’s end. It’s lovely that she gets that moment of deadpan meta-recognition. It’s even lovelier that it quickly passes: “Oh well. I like myself, always did.”

This show’s got spirit. Yeah.

SMOKING IS A TERRIBLE THING, but it’ll always retain certain unavoidable pleasures: that rush of nicotine, the camaraderie over a shared cig. The Last Smoker in America, a new musical at the Westside Theatre, is only terrible.

Directed by the 20-something producer Andy Sandberg, with a book and lyrics by Bill Russell, who wrote the notorious conjoined-twins musical Side Show, and music by Peter Melnick, it’s a mostly incoherent look at a near-future America in which smoking has been outlawed and therefore, per the N.R.A.’s reductionist logic, the suburban-mom last smoker has become an outlaw.

Mr. Melnick’s music is occasionally catchy. But the script’s politics, while seemingly strongly held, are incomprehensible—are we to condemn the smoking police, or instead the mother who abandons her family for the sake of a cigarette? Its jokes—a main one being that the white suburban son hilariously wants to be black—are dull and dated, and sometimes mildly, uncomfortably racist.

Consider this a warning: The Last Smoker in America won’t cause cancer, but it’s certainly not good for your health.

editorial@observer.com