NEW YORK -- Custodians at the St. James Theatre should probably check one extra thing these days before locking up for the night: Make sure there aren't any cheerleaders stuck up in the rafters.
Such is the huge air the performers get in "Bring It On: The Musical" that it might be wise to constantly do a head count.
A lot of theatergoers will share that bouncy feeling when leaving the infectious if not-very-groundbreaking musical comedy that opened Wednesday and is inspired by the cheerleading movie franchise. It has heart – likely beating very, very fast – surrounding a new stage hybrid: Pro-cheerleading married to old fashioned Broadway.
Like all good pyramids, the base is key and "Bring It On: The Musical" has some of the best in the business anchoring this show, which is making a stop on Broadway following a 13-city national tour.
For the music, there's Tony Award-winner Lin-Manuel Miranda, who spearheaded "In the Heights"; Pulitzer Prize-winner Tom Kitt of "Next to Normal"; and lyricist Amanda Green, who teamed up with Kitt for "High Fidelity."
An original story by Tony winner Jeff Whitty of "Avenue Q" fame is directed and choreographed by Tony winner Andy Blankenbuehler from "In the Heights." Toss in a bunch of cheerleading professionals – and we do mean toss – and you've got a show about young people finding themselves that is sometimes sarcastic, sometimes post-ironic, often hip-hopish and yet also traditionally structured. Nothing too subversive, nothing too twee.
Taylor Louderman plays a lily white cheer queen from Truman High School, who is redistricted into a more urban school district the summer she is supposed to take over the squad as captain. Thrust into the unfamiliar Jackson High School, she reaches out to Danielle, the queen bee there (Adrienne Warren) who runs her own dance crew.
They unite to compete as cheerleaders and take on Truman. They both also learn valuable lessons about being less of a spazzy basket-case. Campbell has a romance, but it's sort of tacked on.
There are, of course, several nods to the artifice of the plot: "You know what this reminds me of?" Danielle says at one point. "Those movies, you know what I'm saying, where the white dude or white lady makes a trip to the scary `inner city' and, you know, fixes dem colored folks right up!" But rather than shake up this cliche, the writers are happy just noting it and then tumbling along. The insane stunts cover up a lack of book innovation.
There are a few artful touches in this conventional story – you likely will never look at another leprechaun mascot the same – and some strong songs, but not enough of them.
Basically, the show drags a bit until Miranda takes over writing the songs alone. His fish-out-of-water tune "Do Your Own Thing," his anthemic "It's All Happening" and his hectic "Cross the Line" toward the end can't help but make the blood move.
The songs' creators have said that their footprints are everywhere in the score, so any attempt to correctly identify one verse or melody as coming from a single author is hopeless. And it's true that Kitt and Green do spread their wings into hip-hop, but Miranda's start-stop poetic cadences are easily apparent in the character Twig, who has a few moments of inspired rap, especially the lines "Ya think cheerin' is feminine?/Then I'm a feminist/Swimmin'-in-women, gentleman!"
And kudos to Kitt and Green for "It Ain't No Thing," an empowering, funny blues song about a chubby girl finding her strut. "Got pretty eyes but thunder thighs/It ain't no thing, yeah!"
Louderman is fine in the Kirsten Dunst-ish role of Campbell, especially for keeping clear notes while being held up by three men, though she could lose a lot of the wimpiness she gives Campbell. And Warren is a tad severe in her delivery, but also makes a strong Broadway newbie.
Even so, some in the supporting cast threaten to derail their drama, especially Ryann Redmond as a sort of wonderfully goofy female Josh Gad, and the pocket-sized Elle McLemore, who comes close to channeling Kristin Chenoweth. They've got competition from super-egotistical Kate Rockwell, who plays the "raging, castrating bee-yotch" Skylar who utters the great line: "Sometimes being pretty is enough."
But perhaps the biggest diva in this bunch is Gregory Haney, who plays the transgender cheerleader La Cienega with such good will and humor that you'll want him in every scene. (What's wrong with "Bring It On: La Cienega"?)
Blankenbuehler has nicely melded the high level of bold handsprings and human pyramids that usually appear on ESPN cheer shows with the more funky and modern dance moves of "So You Think You Can Dance." The tempo switches up nicely all night and all the stage is used – not to mention as high as the St. James Theatre proscenium will go.
Though there are few sets since this is a touring show, the production never seems threadbare, mostly thanks to a set of four screens that smartly act as bedroom walls, school hallways and streets. (Though one recent preview had a few screens malfunction, with bursts of incorrect info flashing.) The clean lines are somewhat confused by a set of white girders that hang over the show for no apparent reason.
Cheerleaders got crushed last season on Broadway when "Lysistrata Jones" hit the mat hard and never recovered. But "Bring It On: The Musical" has more – more athletics, more songs, more dazzle, more interesting characters. Someone may just need to regularly count the cheerleaders.