September 15th, 2012

La Loge

Bring It On

Of all the plays anybody who knows me would expect me to see, a musical about cheerleaders would probably be pretty far down on the list.  In fact, when Ellen said she'd bought tickets for it, I didn't know it was about cheerleaders.  I did know she was apologetic.  There was this play a friend had to see for professional reasons, wanted to see it with someone who'd be willing to talk about it afterward, there were cheap TDF tix.  Fair enough.  I trust Ellen, I like theater, even bad theater, I like the friend.  I said I was in and forgot all about it.  I was crazy busy, still catching up on things that had piled up over a somewhat scattered summer.  By the time we found our seats, I was still in a state of blissful ignorance, which lasted until the traditional pre-curtain announcement about cell phones and recording devices, which ended with a coy prohibition about flipping young women except on stage.

I raised an eyebrow at Ellen.  "It's about cheerleaders," she said. 

My heart sank, the music and lights went up, and there I was, with the prospect of two hours in PerkyVille stretching before me like the Nefud.

At first, it was just exactly as dire as I feared.  The "I Want" number was a young (although older than the 17 year old she was playing), skinny blonde praying (literarlly) to become the Captain of the cheerleading squad.  There was a lot of hot pink and turquoise and squeaky-clean hair (mostly blond) tied up with perky red bows.  Everybody was overprivileged, everybody was dressed by Banana Republic and J. Crew.  Virtually everybody was whiter than white.  There was a Queen Bee, her Devoted Yes-Woman, a Fat Geek Girl, a Cute Boyfriend, an Eager Beaver Wannabe Cheerleader, and a chorus of extremely athletic flippers and flippees forming human pyramids and hurling themselves through the air to very loud (and not particularly distinguished) music.  I was, well, bored.  Whatever gene makes people root for the hometeam, I lack it--in that manifestation, anyway.  Who cares if Hamilton High wins the National Cheerleading Trophy?  Not me, and you can't make me, even if you shout real loud and fly through the air.

Then, midway through Act I, Our Heroine (Campbell, her name is) gets redistricted to another school for her senior year, thus losing boyfriend, squad, friends, and all in one fell swoop.  Jackson, of course, is black and street next to Hamilton's white and privileged.  As poor Campbell tries to find someone to tell her the rules so she can try and fit in, her new schoolmates swirl around her, singing of the joys of individualism in perfect harmony.  Enter the hip-hop crew, dancing fit to beat the band.  I can see where this is going, and it isn't anywhere good.  I'm heartened by the fact that one of the hip-hop dancers is a transvestite of considerable beauty and presence, that Campbell gets called on her cluelessness and that the Fat Geek Girl Bridget  (who has been stuck in the mascot's costume in her old school) gets to join the crew and dance a sparkly black lame costume which she rocks exceedingly.  Yes, I'm seeing stereotypes and stereotypical plot points, but I'm seeing them undercut and questioned and played with.  It's not so much irony as it is a mild injection of social consciousness into the fantasy of musical-land, and I'm almost starting to like it when suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, there's this HUGE production number, with Campbell in a sequinned, skin-baring outfit and a black and Latino chorus in throat-to-to shadow suits, and my blood pressure's going up and I'm sitting with my mouth hanging open, because what the hell is this anyway?

I tweet angrily about fail and complain to friend and wife, (which is when I hear that this is based--very loosely--on a movie from the 90's) and sit down for Act II with my arms folded and my jaw set, metaphorically loaded for bear.

The lights go up again, and it turns out the Fail Number was just Campbell's clueless white fantasy of how she's going to win the Nationals even if she's no longer at her old school.  Which gets pretty much the reaction from the Hip-Hop crew that it got from me and made me feel a lot more charitable towards the writers, the actors, the whole musical in general.

This one's likely to be around forever, between Broadway and high school productions, so I won't spoil the surprise twists and turns of the plot.  I will, however, say that, while not nearly as faily as I feared, however well-meaning and clever and genuinely subversive (and it is all that), Bring It On is firmly mired in the white, liberal gaze, with all that means. I couldn't help noticing that all the non-white students were as nice and broadminded and cooperative and generally enlightened as the white students were bitchy and competitive and generally stupid.  According to the Bring It On view of society, all you have to do in an inner-city school to fit in is not try and fit in--which I think we can all agree is not the way it works in real life.  Still, the writers seem to be doing what they're doing deliberately, skating between making sure they don't scare the audience too much (although the delicious Gregory Haney as La Cinega does his best to make them nervous) and making it question some of its cultural assumptions.  I can't say it entirely succeeded for me, but if it makes some tourist from wherever stand up and cheer for somebody they would usually cross the street to avoid, it will have done some good in the world.  Of how many musicals can that be said?

Politics aside, the flipping and twirling and leaping and human pyramids are spectacular.  There was one tiny young woman with a gymnast's strong, compact body, who performs as if flying 20 feet in the air, landing in a roll, and coming out of it to do flips across the stage was no big deal.  And that's in previews.  I don't know who she is, but my hat's off to her, and the rest of the remarkably hard-working and talented chorus.