Hamilton fever is still high I would have thought there’d be lots of competition to cash in on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s name. Miranda contributes songs alongside Tom Kitt and Amanda Green, with Avenue Q’s Jeff Whitty providing the book, based loosely on the 2000 teen comedy. Very loosely – I’m pretty sure in the film Eliza Dushku transferred to Kirsten Dunst’s school rather than the other way round and Phill, who seems to have a worryingly encyclopaedic knowledge of its many straight-to-video sequels, thought some of the plot points might have come from them. Campbell (Robyn McIntyre) has just been made captain of Truman High’s award-winning cheerleading squad, when a rezoning of the school district means she and unpopular student Bridget (Kristine Kruse) have to spend their senior year at the rough Jackson High, which doesn’t even have a cheerleading squad.
After a shaky start Campbell manages to join the local dance crew run by Danielle (Chisara Agor,) and when she discovers her successor at Truman, Eva (Sydnie Hocknell,) has Single White Femaled her right down to stealing her cheerleading crown and her boyfriend (Samuel Witty,) convinces them to form a cheer squad that will take on her former school at Nationals.
It is, inevitably, cheesy but fun, with the dreaded Jackson High turning out to be much more diverse and inclusive. Shunned for her weight at Truman, Bridget is seen as curvy and instantly popular here, Danielle’s crew includes trans member La Cienega (Matthew Brazier,) and it’s only Campbell’s Queen-Bee attitude that makes her an outcast. Given the team of songwriters and the story’s clash of two very different schools, I thought we’d probably get more traditional musical theatre styles from Kitt and Green for Truman, with Miranda’s hip hop-influenced music coming in as a contrast for Jackson, but in practice there’s more of a mix, including in individual songs. It means the show has a distinctive musical style, if not many songs that made me want to seek out a recording.
And director/choreographer Ewan Jones’ production is much stronger on the dance and gymnastics than it is on the songs, although given the setting that’s probably the right focus. There’s some very impressive setpieces as the cast fling themselves around the stage, with Witty and Morgan Howard Chambers in particular being regularly put centre-stage to perform acrobatics. The various strapped-up limbs and occasional whiff of Deep Heat can attest to how punishingly physical the show is.
The comedy is more hit-and-miss; I’d definitely say Heathers has the edge in terms of bitchy one-liners although Isabella Pappas as Skylar gets in some good lines with ruthless self-absorption. And there’s an edge of silliness that’s often appealing, never less so than in Eva’s villain song “Killer Instinct” which ends in a bloodbath of unicorns in onesies (the costumes are definitely designer Tom Paris’ stronger suit; having the set dominated by a giant stock photo is bizarre, and makes the production look tackier than a bare wall would have.) It’s a moment that tips Jones’ production into a level of high camp I could have done with a bit more of, as the lead character is unlikeable (Campbell’s moment of forgiveness after betraying her new friends comes more because the narrative needs to build to a finale, rather than because she’s done anything to deserve it) and I could have done with that level of archness to make up for it. But with a story that barely acknowledges the existence of anyone over the age of 18 it’s a good fit for a company that Menudos its members out after 23, and if the lack of experience means a certain spark is missing, it’s made up for in energy and acrobatics.
Bring It On by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tom Kitt, Amanda Green & Jeff Whitty is booking until the 1st of September at Southwark Playhouse’s Large Theatre.
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.
Photo credit: Eliza Wilmot.