“This is life or death,” screams Skylar. “This is cheer camp!”
The cast of the musical Bring It On – inspired by the hit 2000 film about high school cheerleading starring Kirsten Dunst – rarely lets the intensity drop in this extravaganza of dance and gravity-defying lifts and flips.
Kirby Burgess and the cast of Bring It On. Photo © Nico Keenan
The musical isn’t simply an adaptation of the beloved film, creating instead a new story inspired by the world of competitive cheerleading and bitter team rivalries that Bring It On (and the subsequent five films that expanded the Bring It On cinematic universe) explored. It tells the story of Campbell (Kirby Burgess), the newly elected captain of the Truman High cheerleading squad, whose reign is toppled before it begins thanks to the vagaries of school redistricting. She is forced to leave her friends and team mates behind and find her feet at the less affluent Jackson High, where a different social hierarchy means her privilege and cheerleading skills count for little – especially when it comes to the leader of the school’s hip hop crew, Danielle (Jasmine Smith).
With a book by Jeff Whitty, of Avenue Q fame, the show boasts music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, along with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tom Kitt and Amanda Green (Hands on a Hardbody) respectively. The 2011 musical came after Miranda’s In the Heights, but before Hamilton, and while it might be a starry team, as Charles Isherwood put it in The New York Times when the Broadway production opened in New York in 2012, it “has the feel of a daffy lark embarked upon as a summer-vacation goof.”
The cast of Bring It On. Photo © Nico Keenan
The book is clunky, and the dialogue does a lot of the lifting – made easier by a featherlight plot. Despite the fierceness of the competition, the stakes don’t feel as high as they do in the film, and many of the big emotional moments aren’t sufficiently earned to really pay off. But that’s not to say it’s not a good time. The show is a joyous celebration of friendship and difference (even if it all largely serves the emotional growth of the central character, Campbell) and there are plenty of good laughs to be had along the way.
Fluid direction by Alister Smith and the upbeat score keeps the energy pumping. There are splashes of In the Heights in the second act’s opening ensemble number It’s All Happening but overall the music – like most elements of this show – is primarily a medium for the dancing. The ballads, for instance, are weaker, and poor sound plagued opening night, particularly obscuring some of the lyrics so vital to making the hip hop sequences really pop.
The choreography is fantastic, though, the set bare but for school lockers and bleachers that smoothly roll off to make way for the main event, and it’s certainly worthy of the Green Room Award Michael Ralph won for it when this production opened in Melbourne in 2018.
Samantha Bruzzese, Jasmine Smith and Marty Alix in Bring It On. Photo © Nico Keenan
The rigorous demands of the musical require a cast of triple threats and – perhaps unavoidably in this case – you sense that the dancing took precedence. That said, Burgess brought a striking energy to her sound as Campbell, and if a few more pulled back moments might allow the musical climaxes to stand out, she drives the show forward in an incredibly physically demanding role. Jasmine Smith is a standout, in her first professional role, with her tough, layered Danielle – and her singing in the second act duet We’re Not Done is laden with feeling, matching Burgess’ intensity all the way. Baylie Carson gets plenty of laughs in a heart-warming performance as the goofy team mascot Bridget, who finds herself adjusting to life at Jackson far more easily than Campbell.
It’s in the dancing that the whole cast really shines, and here they don’t put a foot wrong. Athletic cheerleading moves, coached by Natalie Commons, have the audience screaming along, and high-octane, tight-as-a-drum hip-hop numbers see the personalities of the rival schools wrought in movement far more vividly than any uniform.
“Sometimes you’ve got to break the rules if you want to fly,” Danielle tells Campbell. While as a musical Bring It On is far from ground-breaking, it’s certainly entertaining – even if the musical doesn’t fly, the cast sure do.
Bring It On: The Musical is at the State Theatre, Sydney, until September 8