Line up for it: An ambitious ‘Bring It On’ soars in Selma
As I settled into my seat Thursday night before Selma Arts Center’s “Bring It On,” I glanced down and saw a thick line on the floor dividing the auditorium. On “my” side, the audience was seated in Jackson High School territory, one of the two rival campuses depicted in a competitive cheerleading showdown in this musical inspired by the film “Bring It On.” The green strand of Mardi Gras beads that I’d been given, now hanging around my neck, marked my assigned allegiance. The other side of the line — the “red” side — was Truman High School country. The battleground was set. The line was drawn.
Pictured at top: Kenzie Stafford has a star turn as Campbell in “Bring It On.” Photo: Selma Arts Center
I’ll be blunt here: When I learned that the Selma Arts Center and director/choreographer Michael Flores decided to program “Bring It On,” I wondered if the theater company had crossed a line in terms of ambition. (Indeed, one of the show’s most powerful lyrics is: “How do you know who we are unless we cross the line?”) Granted, most Broadway musicals can be scaled down, even ones with massive sets and explosive special effects. But “Bring It On” — a peppy, engaging show with some great music by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tom Kitt — requires a cast that doubles as a full-fledged competitive cheerleaders. We’re talking about precision routines and big stunts. You can’t fake it.
I needn’t have worried. By the end of “Bring It On,” I was invigorated by this well-prepared and handsomely produced show. And I felt proud of its hard-working cast, crew and creative team. Flores put his cast through a mandatory two-week “Cheer Camp” before regular rehearsals began. Did it pay off? Well, I don’t want to over-gush. At no point did I ever think I was watching professional cheerleaders up there on stage. Particularly at the end of the show, “Bring It On” requires a level of visual spectacle and intensity in terms of cheerleading moves that was out of the reach of the Selma players. But what I did get was a terrific sense of espirit de corps from the entire company. They connect emotionally on a fierce and unified level. Their enthusiasm and intensity is infectious.
This show makes me want to cheer.
Alas, there are only three performances left. (I updated readers yesterday on the ticket situation.) I hope you get to see it.
Some thoughts on the production:
The storyline: Kenzie Stafford soars as Campbell, the high school cheerleading captain for national champion Truman High School. She starts out the show on the top of the world — and then takes a tumble when she’s redistricted to another school just as she’s starting her senior year. Jackson High School, a much more diverse place than Truman, doesn’t even have a cheerleading squad. Instead, a hard-working Danielle (a polished and impressive Kay Wilkins), leads the school’s hip-hop dance crew. As Campbell struggles to fit in, the play has a lot of cheerful banter about race and class, but there’s often a wry realism that underpins the teen humor. In a series of wildly implausible events — this is based on the movie version, after all — a newly formed Jackson cheer squad ends up challenging Campbell’s old school in the national championships.
The leading role: Stafford’s vocals are really strong, and her dancing — particularly in an amusing bit as an Irish leprechaun — is terrific. She’s also quite impressive in carrying the weight of the show on her character’s shoulders. (Campbell’s hopes, dreams, desires and transgressions drive the plot.) She’s restrained when need be, goofy at other times, and always giving the feeling that she’s a real person up there on stage, not a cardboard cheerleader cutout. I felt there are times in the show when Stafford, with more training, could strengthen her acting chops — I kept wanting to feel a little more of Campbell’s dark side — but she demonstrates great potential in musical theater. This is a star role, and she excels.
Other standouts: Where to begin? Wilkins brings a core strength and gravitas to Danielle. Jimmy Haynie offers a gender-fluid sophistication to Danielle’s sidekick La Cienaga. (Haynie doesn’t play the character for cheap laughs, and his vocals are impressive. It’s a nuanced, exceptional performance.) Nia Luchau, as Nautica, Danielle’s other sidekick, gets a chance to stand out in the vibrant song “It Ain’t No Thing,” and, man, can she sing! Michael Mendez has some endearing moments as Twig. Caitlin Stahl can be very funny as Skylar, but sometimes plays the humor too broad (particularly in the small Selma Arts Center space).
My favorite belt-it-out-number, Part 1: Abby Halpern, as Bridget, gets to let loose in “It Ain’t No Thing.” As one of the strongest actors in the show, she’s memorable.
My favorite belt-it-out number, Part 2: And then there’s Maya Sosa, who plays Eva, the young rival to Campbell. If there’s one song from the show I wish I could see again — perhaps several more times! — it’d be “Killer Instinct.” Sosa offers a devilishly good turn. She’s another who I could see with a promising musical theater future in front of her.
The ambiance: From the moment I walked in and put on those green beads, the world designed by Flores and his top-notch creative team (assistant choreographer and cheer expert William Davis, scenic designer Erik Andersen, lighting designer Dan Aldape and costume designer Jana Price) felt vivid and real. Aldape’s lights are bright, brash and pulsing with energy, and they’re even splashed on the side walls of the theater, which gives an encompassing feel. (My only quibble: He puts major players in the dark at times.) Price’s costumes — ranging from “street” to suburban pretentious — are great. This is a show in which, much like the old “Peanuts” comic strip, no adults are present. Price, through her costumes, is able to capture a stratified but fluid microcosm of society without resorting to cliche. Andersen’s simple but effective set, designed to look like a competitive cheerleading gym, has a bright and buoyant feel. The show’s overall design feels comfy and encompassing.
The choreography: Many of the cheer routines are crisp and impressive. (My one reservation comes near the end of the show, when the Jackson High School routine doesn’t really have the impact it should. The spectators sing: “No they didn’t!” And the Jackson cheerleaders respond: “Yes, we did!” But I never got a feel as an audience member what exactly Jackson does that is so rule-breaking.) Flores offers innovative choreography in the non-cheer numbers as well, working various motifs of cheer moves into smoother, hip-hop-style dancing.
An observation: One moment in the show is a little odd for me (and it comes at the very end). The final tableaux highlights Campbell in the foreground and Bridget in the background. I’ve been thinking about this, and in the spirit of the play’s racial explorations, it would have seemed more appropriate to make Danielle the second highlight.
The projections: Like a ghost from afar — no, that makes it seems like he died — Dominic Grijalva’s long, long Selma hand of influence is still reaching across the country. (He just moved to New York City.) I’ve almost given up on raving about Grijalva’s designs — what more is there to say? — but in this production, he yet again reaches another level. Using three movable screens on stage, his projections ratchet the show up to new visual heights in terms of storytelling. From replicating Facetime calls to a brilliant, plot-important moment involving a grade change, his work is stellar. And so much fun.
The message: Is “Bring It On” all fluff, or is there a deeper meaning? After seeing this production, I’d vote for the latter. In one of the show’s more tender songs, “Enjoy the Trip,” the character of Randall (a sweet-and-stirring voiced Tim Smith) sings to Campbell:
Trust me on this, when you’re older
and wiser and balder and fatter
And you look back on this
moment in time
The only thing that’s gonna
Did you only do what you
thought you should do?
Did you dance monkey dance
cause the man told you to?
Or did you spend your time doing
what brings joy to you?
For Flores and the entire cast of “Bring It On,” I suspect that years from now, they’ll look back on this production and this magical summer — and recall they spent their time bringing joy.