Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
Nobody is claiming the musical version of the Kirsten Dunst-starring Bring It On movie is great theatre nor is the subject matter, a high-school cheerleading competition in California, particularly attractive to British audiences. But that hasn’t stopped Guildford’s ambitious Performance Preparation Academy backing a high-flying winner.
The uniquely American theme is almost certainly the reason why it has never been done professionally over here or transferred from its 13-city US tour and short 2012 Broadway run.
This exhaustingly athletic story of teen-angst, puppy love, treachery and solidarity with the punchline that perhaps winning isn‘t everything falls nicely between PPA’s autumn triumph Into the Woods and their summer offering of Carousel to illustrate the many-sided musical spectrum their talented students must master.
A wildly-cheered UK drama-school premiere is a dizzy delight for the superbly-drilled, acrobatic cast of 27 under the choreographic wizardry of Academy principal Louise Pieri and director Christopher Howell. Never have humans soared so high without the aid of a safety net!
Yet given its pedigree – Tom Kitt (Next to Normal) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) joined forces on the music with Amanda Green and Miranda providing the lyrics, and a book by Jeff Whitty (Tony-Awarded for Avenue Q) – it should be less cliche-ridden and funnier.
But one seriously amusing moment comes when rejected Truman High cheerleader Skylar, zanily played by Chloe Amber, reflects as the cheer contest reaches its crescendo: “Omigod, everyone’s gone through, like, personal growth, but I’m exactly the person I was a year ago,” before adding: “Oh well, I like myself. I always did!”
The yarn is held together by ambitious cheer queen Campbell whose wings are clipped by the sweet-faced scheming of sophomore Eva – her mother just happens to be on the school board – and she’s mysteriously relocated to the rougher Jackson High where she has to start from scratch to prove she’s worthy.
This gives Amy Matthew some poppily attractive songs, not least the fine ballad ‘One Perfect Moment’ and ‘Something Isn’t Right Here’. With her good looks and strong triple threat skills, this is a young lady to watch out for.
So too, is Molly McGuire, excellent as her hard-to-convince Jackson oppo Danielle, and their duet ‘We’re Not Done’, as Jackson declares war on Truman for the big cheerleading shoot-out that brings the show to its giddy climax, is right on the money.
The best male voice belongs to Joshua Clare as Randall, the ‘musical genius’ who falls for Campbell. Their ‘Enjoy the Trip’ lights up Act II, while Lucy Collins makes the most of the rewarding part of Bridget, a figure of fun at Truman and reduced to being a parrot mascot who finds her happiness level when also ‘redistricted’ to Jackson.
There she’s made to feel much less of an outsider and even becomes the love interest of amorous rapper Twig (Francis Fleury).
We didn’t get to see much of Trixie Waggott when she was the back legs of Milky White in Into the Woods, so it is good to get a more appealing view of her. As egomaniac Eva, the bad girl of the piece, she gets everything out of her solo ‘Killer Instinct’.
In a big team effort, there are plenty of strong individual performances. Amy Baker and Ryan Willis, as Danielle’s lieutenants Nautica and the gender-bending La Cienega, deserve mentions. They team up with Collins in one of the best-written numbers, ‘It Ain’t No Thing’.
This is a high-octane show (with musical backing from Francis Goodhand on piano and Matthew Bartlett on keyboards and drums) that grows more exciting as it goes along and although I confess Bring It On wouldn’t have been my first choice for an evening at the theatre, PPA’s dazzling and inventive interpretation of it won me over in the end.
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Performance Preparation Academy – Into the Woods – Review