Saturday, September 22, 2012

Review of "Bring it On"

With high-flying flips and aerial maneuvers, Bring It On, the new musical inspired by the popular movie of the same name, is fitfully appealing.  At times stereotypical, at other points refreshing and engaging, the show has a hard time settling into one coherent identity.  The big draw of the production, which will appeal greatly to the pre-teen and teenage crowd, are the highly choreographed cheerleading routines.  For the most part, they provide the pizzazz to the musical though by the final curtain you may have had enough of the precision numbers.

The plot centers on two competing high school cheerleading squads.  Campbell, played with a determined enthusiasm by Taylor Louderman, is about to start her senior year as captain of the school’s cheerleading team.  But, with a mysterious twist of fate she and a friend Bridget, portrayed with a bubbly eagerness by Ryann Redmond, are suddenly redistricted across town to the inner city high school that has no squad.  Determined to fit in with the mostly African-American and Latino student population proves daunting at first until she befriends Danielle, who is the leader of the school’s hip-hop dance crew.  She is played with a gritty fortitude and toughness, edged with a layer of warmth and caring by Adrienne Warren.  Together, after much teenage angst and bonding, they form a cheerleading squad so Campbell can compete with her old high school team, now led by her scheming protégé, Eva, a plotting minx portrayed with evil relish by Elle McLemore.  There are new boyfriends, subplots, and more, but the focus is on the associations Campbell and Bridget have once they transfer to their new surroundings at Jackson High.   Their interactions with the new student population are characterized by more honest teenage depictions and feelings.  At their former school the students are more the boilerplate variety as exemplified by the self-centered blonde Skylar; and her frumpy follower, Kylar.

But the emphasis of Bring It On is the world of extreme cheerleading and that is when the show shines.  These daredevil routines bring the musical to life since they are mostly combined with the sizzling choreography of Director/Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler.  His urban, street smart feel, epitomized in his Tony Award winning dance sequences for In the Heights, produce some of the best production numbers of the early Broadway season.  His direction of the musical, however, is more perfunctory. 

Bring It On could be described as high-powered fluff.  But, in addition to Andy Blankenbuehler, it has a notable creative team behind the scenes.  The score is by Tom Kitt (Tony Award for Best Score and Pulitzer Prize for Next to Normal), Lin-Manuel Miranda (Tony Award for Best Score for In the Heights), and Amanda Green.  The book is by Jeff Whitty (Tony for Best Book of a musical for Avenue Q).  It is interesting the aforementioned group would be involved in such a light-weight concoction.  Jeff Whitty’s libretto fluctuates between the standard formula for teenage crisis and concern and the more realistic portrayal of the post-pubescent crowd.  The score, while not the caliber of the team’s previous work, is well-crafted and tuneful, providing some appealing songs to augment the action on stage. 

Bring it On—a spotty, yet exuberant musical more for the middle to high school crowd then those with more sophisticated taste.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Review of "Chaplin"

Chaplin, the new musical that chronicles the life of The Little Tramp, Charlie Chaplin, lacks buoyancy and zip.  Add to that a lackluster score and a pointless Act II and you end up with the first major disappointment of the new Broadway season, which is a shame because of the mostly winning performance by Rob McClure as Chaplin.

The musical starts off with an affecting look at Chaplin’s impoverished younger years in London, his early music hall days, family (brother Sydney and mentally ill mother) and, finally, his formative years in Hollywood.  The book by Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan provide an engaging and entertaining look at Chaplin’s growth in the movie industry.  Director/Choreographer Warren Carlyle moves the production along with a steady hand.  The problem holding back Act I from blossoming is the colorless and banal score by Christopher Curtis.  The action on stage is engaging enough, but there is no musical spark to energize the show, to elevate it from a conventional biography to a spirited Broadway production.

Heading into the second act the show simply implodes, for a variety of reasons.  First, the book by Curtis and Meehan turns from a mostly absorbing and satisfying examination of Chaplin’s movie-making and personal life to an unappealing and listless mess focusing solely on Chaplin’s left-leaning political sentiments as well as the witch hunt conducted by gossip queen Hedda Hopper to discredit the man.  That’s Act II.  Chaplin gives speeches supporting the Russian people.  Hopper, upset because The Little Tramp will not appear on her radio program, prowls the stage digging up dirt on him and trying to prove he is un-American.  Not exactly absorbing or enthralling musical theater.  Second, the score by Christopher Curtis continues to be humdrum and forgettable.  Third, the choices by Director/Choreographer Warren Caryle, agreeable and adroit in Act I, become tired and aimless later on.  The Act II opening, where Chaplin dukes it out in a boxing ring with his ex-wives, is rather strange.  A roller skating number, with only three skaters, is tame and boring.  All the freshness and wonder surrounding Chaplin’s early days has simply vanished.

Rob McClure, as Charlie Chaplin, is lively and energetic.  He also displays the pathos and intensity of a ground-breaking artist.  I hesitate to wonder what the show would be like without his talents.  The rest of the cast is fine.  Yet only Zachary Unger as the young Chaplin truly resonates with the audience.

Chaplin, one to miss.