Those of us who took time to know cheerleaders in high school learned that, contrary to preconceptions, they were often smarter than expected. The same can be said of the cheerleading-themed musical Bring It On, which burst into Belk Theater Tuesday night on its national tour.
You might have expected the daredevil-without-a-net cheer routines, the Broadway-style score flavored with enough hip-hop to seem exotic, the broad and high-wattage delivery by uniformly charismatic leading actors.
But Ill bet you didnt think every championship banner in Truman Highs gym would celebrate girls sports. I know you wouldnt have expected the captains inspirational speech to her squad at the national cheer-off to be a riff on Henry Vs exhortation to battle-weary troops.
We shouldnt be surprised that this musical is more clever than it needed to be. Five Tony-winners took a hand in it: Composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights), composer Tom Kitt (Next to Normal), director and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (In the Heights), librettist Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) and Wicked orchestrator Alex Lacamoire. (Amanda Green also wrote lyrics.)
Bring It On flaunts its youthfulness not only in its cast Ive never before seen a show where each performer looked to be under 30 but in constant references to Google, GPS, Skype and the like. One high schooler reports that an ugly rumor reached him via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter oh, and one person actually came up to me.
Theres not an adult in sight: no teachers, parents, authority figures. A character mentions the pot-fueled profundities of a school custodian, but we dont meet him. This is a young world, which means people in it feel passions more intensely and fire up mouths and hearts before brains. (The shrewdest person, a scheming sophomore, is the villain.)
The creators give us a strangely ambivalent view of cheerleaders at first: We admire their dedication and athleticism while resenting their narcissism and snickering at their frequent empty-headedness. But as we get to know them as individuals as they get to know themselves as individuals we warm to them.
The musical may have been inspired by the five Bring It On films released between 2000 and 2009, but it goes its own way.
Campbell (Taylor Louderman) expects to lead Truman High to a national cheering championship, until redistricting sends her off to mostly black, inner-city Jackson High. (Lets pretend her parents wouldnt immediately have rushed her to private school.)
Campbell realizes simpering Eva (Elle McLemore), who wanted to step into her shoes, engineered the move. (This subplot comes from Oscar-winner All About Eve, of course.)
So Campbell tries to talk Danielle (Adrienne Warren), head of the coolest dance crew at Jackson, into forming a cheerleading squad whose hip-hop routines will trump Truman.
On one hand, the creators provide many elements of a conventional musical: a romance for Campbell, a scene-stealing song of self-affirmation for the heavy girl (Ryann Redmond) who wants a guy, a message that neither robotic teamwork (Truman) nor utter individuality (Jackson) is a workable way to get through life.
But the writers undercut these moments with witty dialogue, zingily clever songs and inventive visuals on four movable screens. And only in the final scene, when the Jackson students take the stage for the showdown, do we see where weve been taken.
The Jackson Irish so-named by long-gone alumni before the neighborhood changed dance in unison. Theyre a rainbow of kids white and black and Latino, pudgy and svelte, bland and spicy, straight and flamboyantly gay.
Now we realize these arent really cheerleaders up there: We are up there, in an idealized version of America as it ought to be. There are many reasons to cheer for Bring It On, but none more satisfying than this.