If you only know Jason Lewis by way of his oft-cuttingly sardonic social media presence, or his internet sensation brainchild, Loretta Jenkins (wickedly, hilariously personified by Nashville-based actress, Cinda McCain), you might think him an odd choice to helm long-respected Circle Players’ regional premiere of the seemingly light and fluffy musical stage adaptation of BRING IT ON. Rest assured, while he is indeed one sarcastic man, in recent months with success directing two varied projects like Circle’s JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and last month’s Act1 regional premiere of REEFER MADNESS , his heading BRING IT ON simply proves Lewis is quickly becoming quite the musical theatre director, placing him right alongside the best Nashville’s theatre community has to offer. With this show, he taps into not just the expected broad humor and stunt-filled dance and cheer sequences that made the original film franchise so popular, but he also masterfully, often subtly, addresses the underlying social, racial and class issues that are indeed present in each an every one of the BRING IT ON films.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that Lewis gets to direct a show whose original pedigree includes music from current Broadway darling Lin-Manuel Miranda (IN THE HEIGHTS and HAMILTON) and Tom Kitt (NEXT TO NORMAL), along with lyrics by Miranda and former Nashville songwriter Amanda Green.
The musical adaptation shares its name with the film franchise’s 2000 debut offering, pieces of the plot seem to be lifted directly from 2006’s BRING IT ON: ALL OR NOTHING, the franchise’s third installment starring a then relatively unknown Hayden Panettiere and Solange Knowles (Bey’s baby sister).
BRING IT ON: THE MUSICAL tells the tale of Campbell Davis, a popular cheerleader on her rise to high school fame (such lofty ambitions, right?), whose dreams are suddenly shattered when she’s forced to relocate to an inner city school. Complicating things further, it’s eventually revealed that her supposed best friend had orchestrated the move in an effort to steal not only Campbell’s cheer spot, but also her boyfriend. (Gotta love a little wink to the classic Bette Davis/Anne Baxter melodrama ALL ABOUT EVE, complete with above-referenced boy-stealer being named Eva!)
For Circle’s production, Lewis has cast Kailey Madison as Campbell. It’s Madison’s charm, atypical perkiness and ability to convincingly portray the basically nonexistent ’white girl angst’ that makes her portrayal of Campbell fun to watch.
Along the way to inevitable eventual happiness (it IS a musical about cheerleaders, after all), our put-upon heroine discovers new friends, a new love interest, changes in her own thoughts and perceptions…and the exciting world of hip hop.
To that end, Lewis has surrounded himself with what could easily be literal #SquadGoals, not only in his cast, but also behind the scenes in his creative crew. Choreography and Cheerography (yes, it’s a thing) are among the show’s strongest points. To that end, co-choreographers Ashley Danielle and Tosha Pendergrast put the cast to task with intricate and enthralling dance moves, with a brilliant cheerography assist from Haley Sue Pearson. Whether they’re gingerly tossing fellow cast mates in the air, creating a perfect cheer-a-mid, or getting down and getting funky, the entire cast lives up to the show’s title with each and every all-in choreographed moment.
Yes, it’s important to know the backstory and set-up to move the plot along, and it’s entertaining to see Emily Urbanski and Maggie Wood seemingly channeling FULL HOUSE’s Kimmie Gibbler times two, not to mention Kayla Petrille’s plot-pertinent Eva, but the action truly begins once Campbell is transferred and the audience is introduced to Miracle Ham as Danielle, the leader of the dance team at Campbell’s new school. With the aforementioned musical team of Miranda, Kitt and Green, you’d think the show would be full of, well, show-stoppers, alas, it isn’t. No worry though. with Ham at the forefront of Act 1’s midway lesson “We Ain’t No Cheerleaders”, what few memorable tunes are interspersed between the thrilling dance/cheer numbers, more than make up for it. On the night I attended, there were some technical issues with Ham’s mic, but that didn’t matter. She powered through the number and didn’t miss a note. Full confession: I half expected her to go full diva and yank the mic pack off while she continued to belt the tune to perfection.
Other standout performances come by way of Evan Acklin as Twig, Nathan Stultz as Randall, Sasha Siclait as Nautical, Toryn Brown as La Cienega and Maddie Menendez as Bridget.
Shultz’s Randall, with his matinee idol looks, enviably perfect hair, voice and moves to match is the quintessential Broadway boy in the making.
Ackklin’s Twig provides some of the show’s funniest moments in his pursuit of Menendez’s Bridget. Lewis definitely knew what he was doing casting these two in their respective opposites attract roles.
As for Menendez’s Bridget, she’s the ultimate underdog we’re all rooting for. Thanks to Menendez’s undeniable stage presence, moxie and a billion-watt smile, the audience spots her early on in group numbers and cheers for her throughout the show. Her surprisingly touching shining moment comes alongside Siclait’s Nautica and Brown’s La Cienega during another of the show’s more memorial musical moments, the affirming “It Ain’t No Thing”, a song that could easily be described as the ultimate “if you don’t like me, that’s your problem, not mine” anthem.
As I mentioned when I chatted with Brown for a recent Rapid Fire 20 Q, the character of La Cienega is historic in that it marked the first time a teenage trans character was featured in a Broadway show. Best part of La Cienega’s presence, especially as played by Brown under Lewis’ direction, the fact that the character is trans is hardly a blip in the story and might go totally unnoticed by the majority of audiences, as it should be. For more insight on La Cienega, in particular, Brown’s portrayal of her, CLICK HERE to check out my Rapid Fire 20 Q with director Lewis and the cast and choreographers.
While the above-mentioned handful of performers garner the majority of the spotlight, the entire ensemble become unintentional scene-stealers, most notably Alexis Marks and Brady Cauthen, with their undeniable charisma and ability to perfectly execute the often complex cheerography/choreography. I’m calling it now…these two are ones to watch.
If there’s a musical currently onstage in Nashville that’s sure to bring its audiences to their feet, cheering all along the way, Circle Players’ BRING IT ON, with director Jason Lewis calling the shots, definitely brings it. BRING IT ON: THE MUSICAL wraps its three-week run at The Looby Theatre with performances through Sunday, August 27. Season Tickets are available in two options. There’s a Thursday Season Package (a set of five tickets—one ticket for a Thursday performance of each of the season’s five shows) for $45. There’s also a Friday, Saturday, Sunday Season Package (a set of five tickets—one ticket for either a Friday, Saturday or Sunday performance of each of the season’s five show’s) for $75. Of course there’s always Single Show Ticket options as well. Thursday tickets are available at a special $10 per ticket price, with Friday, Saturday and Sunday tickets only $20. CLICK HERE for tickets or more information. Follow Circle Players on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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