Music Theatre

Bring it On the Musical review [Melbourne 2019]

Sold out before it opened in 2018, Bring it On the Musical makes a very welcome return to the Melbourne stage, with an Australian tour to follow.

The independent production is confidently presented on an ambitious scale, with the chief resources wisely focused on the truly thrilling dance routines. A highly deserving winner of the 2018 Green Room Award for Best Choreography, Michael Ralph’s work is as sharp and tight as ever, impressing as much for its level of spectacle as for its deft incorporation of character and storytelling.

Loosely based on 2006 direct-to-DVD threequel Bring it On: All or Nothing, the musical is a positioned as a joyful guilty pleasure for teens and parents. The simple fish out of water story sees passionate cheerleader Campbell transferred from white bread Truman High School to inner city Jackson High School, a place which (gasp) does not even have a cheerleading squad.

Jeff Whitty’s relatively simple book provides a bevy of sharply observed teen characters, including Broadway’s first transgender character, the fabulous La Cienega. During the show’s development, Tom Kitt and Amanda Green’s score received a significant boost in the form of song writing input from none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda. Aficionados of In The Heights and Hamilton will easily identify Miranda’s work in numbers such as “Do Your Own Thing” and “It’s All Happening.”

Conducting and playing keyboard, music director Daniele Buatti leads six fellow musicians in a terrific performance of Kitt and Miranda’s music. On opening night, director Alister Smith took to the stage to explain that illness had impacted the rehearsal season. Although all cast members performed on opening night, the effect could be heard in some remnants of vocal strain. Additionally, sound design (by Greg Ginger) occasionally did not help in tuning the ear to the individual vocals over the band; this will surely be tweaked and improved as the season progresses. Despite all this, it must be noted that ensemble singing is impressively and securely strong.

In line with the killer work of Ralph and cheerleading coach Natalie Commons, Smith’s direction keeps energy sky high. The stage voltage flows freely across the footlights, infusing the audience with vibrant enthusiasm. Characterful humour is crisp and enjoyable, and the storytelling stakes, as seen from the perspective of the teen characters, are kept high.

While the show’s opening minutes generate fear that this is perhaps going to be a trite, predicable teen fantasy, the shift to Jackson High raises the level of interest considerably, with music, characters, costumes and choreography all rising to their premium levels.

Working creatively on a budget, set designer Nathan Weyers makes good use of locker bays and bleachers to create multiple scenes. Weyers also works closely with lighting designer Declan O’Neill to incorporate stadium-style lighting as a very effective component of the set.

A key component of Bring it On’s visual appeal is the sterling work of costume designer Rhiannon Irving, whose eye for detail is a crucial factor in the success of vividly establishing the individuality of the characters. A clever detail comes when Jackson High’s hip hop crew eventually enters the cheerleading arena: the characters sport traditional uniforms but have individualised these with personal tags.

Although not heard at full voice on opening night, Kirby Burgess nonetheless makes a delightful Campbell, throwing her heart into the unflappable teen’s mission of dance. Even in the early stages when Campbell is a privileged girl living her dreams, Burgess brings an engaging level of pluck and vulnerability, which pays dividends as the story proceeds.

Still in third year at VCA, newcomer Jasmine Smith brings an authentic sense of grit and determination to less privileged Jackson High alpha teen Danielle, demonstrating her triple threat talents with nicely understated flair. Less a show about boy meets girl than girl meets girl, Bring it On’s hard won friendship between Campbell and Danielle culminates in searing 11 o’clock duet “We’re Not Done,” powerfully performed by Smith and Burgess.

Holdover cast members from 2018 include Samantha Bruzzese and Marty Alix in the wonderfully characterful roles of Nautica and La Cienega, two saucy best friends who practically deserve their own spin-off sequel. Karla Tonkich conveys the shameless ambition of bodacious villain Eva with great flair.

Hollie James gives Kylar a delightfully daffy Texan twang, while Emily Thompson ensures that Skylar’s blinkered cheerleading obsession shines through. Thomas McGuane brings a preppy CW vibe to Campbell’s new potential beau Randall.

New to the cast in 2019, Baylie Carson nails the adorkable humour of endearingly insecure Bridget, a character who arguably who arguably scores the show’s best arc as she blossoms with dance, and romantic, success. With the previous performer having graduated to a certain little movie project, the role of Twig is filled by Dayton Tavares, who was seen in the title role at the 2008 Melbourne premiere of Billy Elliot*. Tavares delivers incredible dance moves, and will hopefully be seen on the musical theatre stage again before too long at all.

The hardworking ensemble is a key aspect of the enjoyment of Bring it On. Special mention goes to the inclusion of trained cheerleaders Kat Abela, Daniel Bailey, Caitlyn Hammond and Ossie McLean.

Not a musical for the cynical or jaded theatregoer, Bring it On the Musical transcends its solid material to provide a memorable program of eye-popping dance. Fans of cheerleading will enjoy its incorporation in mainstage entertainment, and lovers of Lin-Manuel Miranda while appreciate the chance to hear more of the master’s music while we all await the Australian premiere of Hamilton.

Bring it On the Musical plays at Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne until 27 July 2019 before touring to Perth and Sydney.

*Man in Chair’s 31 December 2008 review of Billy Elliot cannot be linked as it pre-dates this website. Here is a relevant quote: “On opening night the role of Billy was played by Dayton Tavares, who gave a performance that would be the envy of most adult entertainers. Clearly a highly accomplished dancer, with particular strength in acrobatics, Tavares also sang strongly and spoke with very clear diction, holding the Geordie accent perfectly. He was a joy to watch.”

Photos: Nico Keenan

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