Review by Rob Bartley
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s second musical (slotted in between In ‘The Heights’ and ‘Hamilton’), ‘Bring It On’ has previously had a rocky journey in the UK. Although popular the States with its national tour and limited Broadway engagement, the musical’s British touring plans have previously been postponed twice (thanks Covid). It did enjoy a brief stint in 2018 as a college production at London’s Southwark Playhouse, and now it’s finally hitting the road, pom poms a-blazing and ready to entertain. Fresh from a recent tryout at Peterborough’s New Theatre, ‘Bring It On’ is now playing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London’s Southbank Centre, where it opened last night.
Similar in style to ‘Heathers’ but without all that pesky murdering, ‘Bring It On’ is loosely based on the 2000 film of the same name, and centres around the terrifying world of high-school cheerleading. Campbell (Amber Davies) dreams of becoming squad captain for Truman High School, which she achieves, and initially her actions as captain bring the team success. Soon after, she learns she’s being redistricted and sent to the inner city Jackson High School, who don’t even have a cheer squad (god forbid). With her dreams gone, and struggling to fit into her new school, she meets Jackson High’s resident dance crew led by Danielle (Vanessa Fisher), and begins to wonder if this new direction can still help her fulfil her ambitions.
With 3 Tony-winning creatives on its squad, ‘Bring It On’ has a lot going for it. Miranda shares composition credit with Tom Kitt (‘Next To Normal’), and the book is by ‘Avenue Q’ writer Jeff Whitty. With lyrics by Amanda Green and Miranda, the talent both off-stage and on are strong. The show is polished, well directed by Guy Unsworth, and laced with enough dry humour that it never takes itself too seriously. It knows that it’s a dance musical about cheerleading, it’s not trying to be Shakespeare, and it does it well.
Miranda and Kitt’s score is mostly catchy, and Miranda's influence and signature style becomes more prominent as the story moves to Jackson High, moving from slick dance-pop to a grittier hip hop sound. Opener “What I was Born to do” kicks things off with energy and style, and “Do Your Own Thing” dynamically introduces the more urban style of Jackson High. “Close The Line”, which the Jackson squad perform their championship routine to, is another earworm that stays with you. There are a few duds though (true of every musical, really); Campbell's plodding ballad “One Perfect Moment” in the first act never gets out of second gear, and the drippy “Enjoy The Trip” in Act 2 is lyrically clunky.
The school-gymnasium set initially looks impressive, but it remains the same throughout, with only a few pieces of furniture and some bench seating wheeled on and off to convey changing locations. This does make the production lack a little 'wow' factor, but the energy of the ensemble and thrilling choreography by Fabian Aloise more than make up for this. Unsworth and Aloise clearly know their ensemble are the driving power behind this show’s energy, and they make full use of them. Movement is slick and synchronised, and the impressive jumps, drops and flips are masterfully executed.
The talented and diverse cast give their all in their performances, with authentic American accounts throughout (always a concern). Love Island winner Amber Davies takes the lead as Campbell, and does a great job. Don't let the Love Island connection colour your judgement, she earned her stripes at Urdang Academy prior to her Reality TV breakthrough, and has since appeared as one of the leads in the Nine To Five musical. She has an excellent voice, she's a talented lead, and based on only her second lead role here, she has a decent stage career ahead of her. Vanessa Fisher also makes a strong impression as the strong and proud Danielle, commanding the stage and even pulling focus away from Davies at times. Chelsea Hall is brilliant as adorable outcast Bridget, scoring most of the comedy moments, and Chloe Pole also does well as queen bitch Skylar, although it's a shame she isn't given more to do. Special mention also needs to go to Alicia Belgarde as cheer-hungry Eva, whose descent from wide-eyed innocent into crazy-eyed whackadoo is a joy to watch.
Louis Smith (gymnast and Strictly winner) also “headlines” the cast, playing jock Cameron. Using Smith's name and image to sell tickets may leave many of his fans disappointed, as he's hardly in it. Smith barely makes an impression, having little to do in the first act other than share a couple of small rapping moments and doing lots of skulking in the background and attempting swagger. There is no sign of his Strictly-winning moves (actually looking somewhat awkward dancing next to the other male performers), and his gymnastic contribution consists of a handstand, a back-flip and two cartwheels in the second act. It's an ensemble part where ironically he's shown up by much stronger ensemble performers. Fans may rush to see him in this, but it's doubtful they'll choose to go on to see him in anything else.
'Bring It On' is a high-energy and fun night out. The pace does falter in the second end when the story focuses a little too much on the teen drama and romance (although Eva's “Killer Instinct” number gives it a much-needed comedy lift), but the final two championship routines are thrilling, and the show ends on a high. It will probably always remain Miranda's third best-loved musical, but that’s still a compliment given its siblings, and although it's hit a few obstacles in getting to UK stages, it was worth the wait. ★★★★
‘Bring It On’ runs at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London's Southbank Centre until 22nd January 2022, before touring the UK.
Tickets from https://www.bringitonthemusicaluk.com/