Pelican Productions
Norwood Concert Hall
Until 05 Aug 2018

Review by Sarah Westgarth

Following their successful season in 2017, Pelican Productions has brought back their award-winning production of ‘Bring It On: The Musical’ to the Norwood Concert Hall with all the spectacle, stunts, and sparkle you’d expect. Featuring 60 young performers, exuberant acrobatics, and a complex audio-visual design, the production is an impressive feat by the creative team, and there’s little wonder why they chose to produce a return season. The cast is undeniably talented, with a polish and poise to their performances that’s sometimes missing from professional productions. The music soars, the vocals are stunning, and the choreography wows, all of which mostly manage to be a strong enough distraction from the fact that the show itself lacks real substance.

While ostensibly based on the 2000 film starring Kirsten Dunst and Eliza Dushku, this version eschews the original plot of the source material, with writer Jeff Whitty developing new characters, setting and story. The world of high school cheerleading remains the central focus, with senior student Campbell (Scarlett Anthony) achieving her lifelong dream of becoming the captain of Truman High School’s squad in the opening scenes. Her journey to Nationals becomes less than straightforward, however, when she is unexpectedly redistricted to the inner-city Jackson High School, which doesn’t even have a squad. Campbell goes from having everything she’s ever wanted to suddenly being isolated and out of place. She meets Danielle (Stephanie Cole), leader of the Jackson High dance crew, who is initially dismissive of Campbell, but soon warms to her and invites her to join their crew. When Campbell discovers her transfer may have been not a coincidence at all, but the evil machinations of her former protégé Eva (Eve Green), Campbell convinces Danielle to turn their crew into a squad and beat Truman High at Nationals.

From the get-go, Campbell’s arc is a tough sell; it’s very hard to care about her problems that reek of privilege and entitlement. Scarlett Anthony looks pitch-perfect in the role, and her voice is truly stunning. It’s a polished and poised performance, but lacks the emotional depth to give Campbell’s plight any real weight. Whitty’s script doesn’t give her much to work with, though, as the story manages to feel both overstuffed and underwritten. The plot takes so many turns that it is hard to latch onto a well-developed arc to follow. Most of the conflicts that arise are solved within two musical numbers and the stakes never feel very high. Campbell does ultimately learn a lesson that friendship is more important than winning, but it rings hollow. The chemistry between Anthony and Cole is strong, but the audience never gets the opportunity to see them getting to know each other or develop the relationship that is supposed to be at the heart of the story. Cole’s portrayal of Danielle does reflect some nuance, and her captivating stage presence is able to bring some more substance to it all—but the character is given little agency of her own, and is there largely to serve Campbell’s story.

In its original production the students of Jackson High School are all played by people of colour, highlighting the culture shock that Campbell experiences, and bringing the issue of race to the forefront. In this production, this is undercut by the lack of diversity in the cast, and therefore the hip-hop inspired numbers and colloquial language take on an uncomfortable tone. It doesn’t help that the script treats the subject of race and class in such a clunky and sanitised way. It’s never tackled head-on; if anything it is quite literally danced around, and quickly falls into the unfortunate trope of the black and poor characters existing just to teach the white, rich character a lesson. There is an attempt to subvert this—Danielle has a few lines that wryly acknowledge the problematic nature of what is going on, which suggests some self-awareness, but the show fails to capitalise on this. Perhaps in the hands of more experienced and nuanced performers, the irony of it all would be highlighted in a more effective way. As it is, ‘Bring it On: The Musical’ feels decidedly tone deaf, with characters that never feel like real people, instead relying on cliché stereotypes. This may have been intended to be deliberate, leaning more into parody, but if that’s the case, it doesn’t come across in this production.

The show is still a crowd-pleaser, though, with the music in particular enough to make the night worthwhile; the numbers are the consistent highlights of the night. The singing is truly extraordinary, with the musical direction by Rosanne Hosking and Peter Johns making the most of the talent in the cast and band. The choreography of a show like this has to wow, and Carla Papa and Chloe Boucher deliver on this front. The energy and strength on display, particularly in the big cheerleading routines, is spectacular to watch, and it’s a marvel what this young cast is capable of doing. The American setting has the potential to become grating, but the consistent accent work in all of the leads is genuinely impressive. The cast generally all perform solidly in their roles, though sometimes lack the comedic skills to make all of the jokes really land. Eve Green brings a lot of fun to the malicious Eva, though didn’t bring out the darker side of the role as strongly as she could have (it’s difficult when the villain has a lack of realistic motivation for any of her actions). Katie Olsson as Nautica is a standout in the dance numbers, and Billie Turner as Bridget brings a sweetness to an otherwise thankless role.

‘Bring it On: The Musical’ may lack substance, but it’s an enjoyable show that doesn’t require much from its audience. The spectacular musical numbers are a lot of fun, and seeing this level of professionalism out of such a young cast is a sight to behold, and owes a lot to the direction by Adam Goodburn. It’s a technically complex show, though potentially didn’t need to be; the set and video design was occasionally a bit much and served more as a distraction—a simplicity that highlighted the performers may have been a better choice. At the end of the day, the talent, work, and dedication that goes into a show like this is all up there on stage, and everyone involved should be commended. It’s exciting to imagine the future that lies ahead for the members of this cast, and for Pelican Productions.