Scrappy fringe premiere of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s high school musical
One of the best ever high school movies, given a musical makeover by Lin-Manuel Miranda? OMG! But ‘Bring It On’ gets a notably low-key UK premiere in this fringe production by the British Theatre Academy.
The 2000 film features astonishing acrobatic sequences; the 2012 Broadway production by all accounts was similarly gymnastic. Despite some impressive tumblers, the actual cheerleading side here inevitably feels cramped and underwhelming in the small Southwark Playhouse.
Still, the big cast are bright, perky, and have fun; their final dance sequence gets you rooting for the pupils of Jackson High.
Devoted fans will remember there is no Jackson high in the film. Jeff Whitty’s book rewrites the plot almost entirely, in fact. Cheer captain Campbell has to transfer from Truman, her posh school, to the rougher Jackson. There, it’s cool to be yourself, and diversity is hip: their sick dance crew is made up of all races, all sizes, all gender identities…
But this wokeness is only surface deep. The movie had a privileged all-white cheer squad taken down for pinching an all-black squad’s moves; an early pop culture look at cultural appropriation.
In the musical, Campbell (Robyn McIntye) persuades the hip-hop crew to become her cheerleading squad, promising college places if they win the national competition. In fact, she just wants to beat her nemesis at Truman. She’s clearly meant to learn it’s not about being the best, it’s about being yourself – but the actual power dynamics read as bossy white girl appropriates cool black culture for deeply selfish ends…
It feels improbable that these cool kids would ever agree to become her cheerleaders, especially when her lies are exposed. I guess we’re meant to see an inspiring friendship growing – across socio-economic and racial barriers! - but actually Campbell remains prissy and unappealing.
The film’s lightly sly satire is recreated – but there are some remarkably straight-faced, schmaltzy numbers too. Happily, the move to Jackson provides welcome dollops of sarkiness and sass. Hip-hip moves ignite the show, as do Miranda’s mercurially slick and quick-fire rhymes – foreshadowing ‘Hamilton’ – delivered here with bravado (though it’s worth noting that he’s just a co-writer here, sharing credits with Whitty, Tom Kitt and Amanda Green).
Chisara Agor, Mary Celeste and Matthew Brazier are fun and fierce as the leading trio of the Jackson dance crew, and Kristine Kruse is big-hearted and big-voiced as the dweeby Bridget. Isabella Pappas is pin-point perfect as a vacuous cheerleader who – in one of a scattering of enjoyably witty, meta moments – complains to the audience that’s she’s not been on any emotional journey.
This isn’t quite the camp take on a cult classic you’d hope, but it’s jolly enough. If you’re up for a perky cheerleading musical, it probably won’t disappoint; if you’re hoping for a high school ‘Hamilton’, it probably will.