Stephen Sondheim famously opined that musical comedies aren't written, they're rewritten. This might explain then why But I'm A Cheerleader, which its NYC-based creators Bill Augustin and Andrew Abrams have been working on for over a decade, is in such terrific shape as it premieres here.
Based on a cult 2000 comedy film, this is a musical that plays by well-defined rules – an opening number that sets up the whole situation with clarity and wit…relatable characters…intelligent storytelling…an act one finale that sends audiences out on a high…authentic show-stopping numbers…heck, like Oklahoma!, it even has a dream ballet – but makes them feel fresh and vital. If it's immediately reminiscent of other teen-centric musicals, it is rather more sophisticated in intent and execution.
That is inevitable perhaps given that this neon-etched, candy-coloured poppet of a show is actually dealing with the repellent practice of gay conversion therapy. One suspects that Sondheim would have approved of employing a full-on arsenal of feel-good musical theatre tropes to tell a fundamentally sinister story. In all honesty, the sinister could still afford to be amped up a bit at the expense of the cute bouncy stuff.
Picture-perfect cheerleader Megan (sublime Alice Croft) gets shopped by her popular pals to her deeply conventional parents for having Victoria's Secret catalogue pages cellotaped inside her gym locker and for being impervious to the advances of her dumb jock boyfriend. She's shipped off to a conversion camp presided over by a horrific (but hugely entertaining…for us) glamazon Mary Brown (Tiffany Graves, camp as Christmas but probably more enjoyable, like Annie's Miss Hannigan with a stylist) who's unable to cope with the fact that her husband turned out to be gay and her beloved son is clearly going the same way. She gets a sassy second act number about domestic cleaning that feels like a Kander and Ebb classic…Augustin and Abrams really know what they're doing, and Graves is stunningly good.
One of the marvels of Tania Azevedo's production is how the boppy teen musical clichés of Heathers, Legally Blonde et al are given full rein but then subside into something nastier (cue a troubling "family therapy" scene where we see the youthful defiance of the kids torn down by their prejudiced parents), yet still come out on the other side as sweet, inclusive and uplifting. Nuance and subtlety may get slightly compromised but the sheer good-heartedness and ‘eff you' energy are hard to resist.
The score is gospel-heavy (not inappropriate given the evangelical inclinations of the would-be converters), leaning into soft rock and pop at times. If not particularly original, it is consistently engaging and makes you immediately want to hear most of the songs again. The lyrics are efficient at worst and winningly crude at best (rhyming "wrong" with "dong" is terribly basic but it works joyously well in context). When this show gets its inevitable West End transfer, cast album and cult following, this will be a very popular album on Spotify.
If the plot is tied up a little too hurriedly in the second half, the belly laughs, full-throttle performances and roof-raising numbers go a long way towards compensating. It's rather lovely, for a couple of hours, to be in a world where all life's problems are solved by the addition of pom-poms, a cheerleader's skirt and a same-sex kiss.
Azevedo's production is brilliantly staged, making a witty virtue of the fact that several performers play multiple roles (Jodie Steele's quick changes from hard-faced cheerleading dynamo to sweet Aussie camp inmate are particularly amusing) while also using the Turbine's tiny stage to maximum effect. Choreographer Alexzandra Sarmiento's work is fabulous throughout – angular, dynamic, character-driven.
And those characters are vivid: Evie Rose Lane's sexy, grungy, vocally thrilling love interest, Lemuel Knights as a hilariously inappropriate convert whose interest in Mary's muscular son (Edward Chitticks, fabulous) is far from conventionally Christian, Aaron Teoh as a timid inmate who suddenly discovers his roar in a clever, beautifully delivered ballad that really ups the emotional ante… this is a gallery of funny, outrageous people who are simultaneously cartoon creations but palpably human. This is typified nowhere better than in the performances of Jodie Jacobs and Oliver Brooks who manage to be simultaneously hilarious yet authentically touching as Megan's bewildered parents and also the marvellous gay couple who liberate her.
This is a rollicking good time, but it has a serious heart and a keen wit. It's bubblegum with razor blades. Utterly irresistible.