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Bring It On: The Musical review – lots to cheer with Lin-Manuel Miranda tunes

The show has a festive season at the Southbank Centre ahead of a major tour into next year

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
The cast of Bring It On
© Helen Maybanks

The stage version of Bring It On (a very different offering to the film) has a whiff of the experimental. Having roped in two composing teams – Tom Kitt and Amanda Green on one hand and Lin-Manuel Miranda on the other – the material is split between two warring schools – the prim Truman Academy and the inner-city Jackson High School, where everyone is able to "Do Their Own Thing". Kitt tackles Truman, Miranda, with instantly recognisable lyrical brava, Jackson. It gives an element of disjointedness to the whole experience, but is an intriguing watch as you try to spot which creative tackled which number.

The show, like the turbulent trials of its cheer teams, has had a tempestuous journey to the UK stage – a 2017 tour collapsed for various reasons, though a pleasant British Youth Theatre Academy production was a hoot at Southwark Playhouse in 2018. Finally, obviously with a wad of Covid delays, the piece gets the grand scale it requires – a full company splashed across the Queen Elizabeth Hall stage on Libby Watson's gym set.

Unlike the majority of screen-to-stage musicals, book writer Jeff Whitty has decided against simply replicating the Kirsten Dunst/Gabrielle Union 2000 flick beat for beat. Instead, he tells the tale of an ambitious, kind of dick-ish cheerleader Campbell (like the soup, as some of Miranda's lyrics point out), who, upon being moved from Truman to Jackson, ruthlessly tries to carve out a cheer fresh squad from her new, rather reluctant classmates.

For the most part, it's bland, beat-for-beat high school musical fare, a more physical, less edgy Heathers with some fun one-liners and catchy tunes you could easily add to your work-out playlist. It's also Lin-Manuel Miranda-lite material – sometimes you catch a hint of Hamilton-to-come: "Friday Night, Jackson" has the "Helpless" "hey"s, while "It's All Happening" has an air of "The Schuyler Sisters".

The production has a few tricks up its sleeve – namely choreographer Fabian Aloise, having the unenviable task of following Broadway choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. Aloise has a chunk of credits to his name, namely his jaw-dropping work on Evita with Jamie Lloyd – so has very little to prove here. He comes into his own during the show's rollercoaster climax, as the two rival schools battle it out in the National finals.

The original production ushered the likes of Adrienne Warren, Taylor Louderman and Ariana DeBose into the Broadway mainstream, and, in the same vein, there are a few firecracker cast members in action this side of the Atlantic. Amber Davies, doing a lot more choreography here than the stumblin' outta bed and tumblin' to the kitchen she had to do in 9 to 5, is a note-perfect Campbell (there's even a fun Love Island gag there for the fans).

Vanessa Fisher, though playing perhaps too much of a second fiddle to Davies to shine in her own right, provides drive and sits squarely at the emotional heart of the conflict. Considering the New York run featured actual cheerleaders, the fact that the UK cast learned all their moves from scratch is pretty impressive.

The show therefore hits its stride during its athletic, punchy choreography, finding less sturdy ground on Whitty's uneven book. Thankfully, there are enough high-octane experiences to keep the whole thing buzzing along with respectable pace.

In a post-Glee world, obsessions over "regionals" and "nationals" is all endearingly worn, and the show has a late 00s-twee that hasn't completely stood the test of time. But if you let yourself go with the flow and hop onto the bandwagon, there's definitely some festive cheer to be had.

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