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When looking over the prospects for July, I came across a little notice of a show being done in the gymnasium of William Peace University, a lovely but fairly quiet locale now that summer is upon us. But what better place for North Carolina Theatre Conservatory to stage Bring It On: The Musical, a show that involves... cheerleading. Say again? Yes, cheerleading. Yet another musical about high school angst? My first reaction was "Oh, please!" But then I gave the show another look: music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda — yes, of Hamilton fame (Tom Kitt also contributed music and Amanda Green assisted on lyrics). I thought I may I have dismissed this show prematurely and decided to give it a go.
WPU's Hermann Athletic Center is not widely accessible. You have to know where you are going, and you can get lost, especially on this lovely campus. But NCTC and their summer program, Summer Theatre Arts School (STAS), have placed signs along the walkway directing you to the Hermann Center. If you know the campus and its private streets, you can drive to it at 15 E. Peace Street; if not, you may park in the front parking area and enjoy a stroll through the campus to the Hermann Center.
As Miranda's tip of the hat to the teenage genre, Bring It On is set on the campuses of two rival high schools. The first, Truman High School, is in the process, as the curtain opens, of conducting their summer tryouts for the cheerleading squad. We are introduced to several members of the squad, as they try to undertake adding to the team; the attendees are sparse. We meet Skylar (Whitley Lynn), one of the up-and-coming stars of the squad: blond and blue-eyed, with attitude with a capital A. She despairs at the turnout. There is also Kylar (Lily Salyer), a carbon copy of her classmate. She's assisting as the girls try out their moves. But we are also introduced to Campbell (Chloe Calhoun), our protagonist, a dark-haired dynamo who is doing her best to sort through the wannabes to get the best of the bunch. Finally, we meet Bridget (Greyson Huneycutt), who is best buds with Campbell. Bridget has been assuming the role of the mascot the entire past year. The Truman mascot is a pirate parrot, a one-eyed, solid red avian with wings for arms. Bridget feels she has served her time as mascot and wants to join the squad, for real. Skylar, in her inimitable fashion, "lets her down easy" by informing her that she is the best mascot they've ever had and she must remain so. The squad will be training for Nationals this year and everyone will be expected to give their best.
The decision by STAS to use this show is pretty obvious; there are far more girls in it than boys (which solves a perennial problem) and the total cast, including ensemble members, equals 31, which allows a great many students to participate and show their talents. Bring It On is a very athletic and physically challenging show to produce, and these kids gave it 110%. Backed (literally; the orchestra is on a raised platform behind the set) by a seven-piece orchestra led by musical director Michael Santangelo, the entirety of the show is staged on standard gymnasium floor mats. The stage is about 50 x 40 feet, with the audience on three sides.
Things seem to be going along fairly smoothly for the kids at Truman; the squad has won a place toward Nationals next summer and Campbell wins, by lot, the Captaincy of the squad ("One Perfect Moment"). But as the school year is about to commence, Campbell gets a letter from the school board. Redistricting in the area has transferred both Campbell and Bridget to another high school. So the pair are off to Jackson High School, where — guess what? — they don't even have a cheerleading squad! OMG!
Things at Jackson are done, well, a little differently ("Do Your Own Thing," sung by the Jackson ensemble). The school roster is a bit more racially diverse, and the most widely accepted mode of expression is not the cheer squad (as it was at Truman), it's the hip-hop dance crew ("We Ain't No Cheerleaders"). The elite of Jackson are on the crew, just as Truman's elite are on the squad. Leading the crew is Danielle (Charlie Byrd), a pretty stunning, long-legged dancer who has more than a little attitude of her own. Now Bridget, mostly due to the moves that she learned being the pirate parrot, becomes a sought-after lass, both on and off the crew. It's a new role she doesn't quite know how to fill. Campbell, on the other hand, is a little "too white," as one student suggests, to be on the Crew. But after Bridget takes Campbell to speak to Danielle at her place of work, Campbell lights into a customer who demeans Danielle. Seeing Campbell has her back, Danielle admits Campbell to the Crew ("Friday Night Jackson").
Nearing the end of Act I, things are moving along okay for Campbell and Bridget; it's not what they had expected to be doing their senior year, but they're making the best of it. It is here we learn of a heretofore unknown little wench by the name of Eva (Ellen Pierce), who has become captain of Truman's cheerleading squad through suspiciously sudden (and convenient) occurrences. Skylar has flunked Home Ec, so she's off the squad, and Kylar has come down with mono, so she's off, too, raising Eva, the unknown sophomore, to Captain of the Squad. Campbell, apprised of the situation via Skype with Skylar and Kylar, smells a rat ("Something Isn't Right Here"). Eva, a nasty little hellion ("Killer Instinct"), turns out to be our sleeper villain responsible for the other members' downfalls.
What I like the most about Bring It On is that it doesn't turn out like one thinks it will. In addition to the spirited and highly physical and taxing dances these kids perform – and which this audience just loved - the tables turn just a bit and we are faced with an ending that we don't expect. It's one that isn't the fairytale ending, putting everything right and giving little Eva her comeuppance. No, it's a far more real and more uplifting ending that spotlights true friendship and a looking to the future.
As we have come to expect with NCTC, the STAS team has turned out a professional-grade production using a cast and crew of students just learning the ropes of theatrical staging. If you want to see some finely executed routines that would rival any high school's actual squad as well as get some really fine and modern showtunes (rap, hip-hop, and a few Miranda surprises), then you need to make your plans to get over to Peace right now, because after this weekend, show's over.
Only two more performances of Bring It On are on tap, tonight (Saturday, July 6) and tomorrow (Sunday, July 7). For showtimes and tickets, please see the sidebar.