The wonderful young talents at the Drama Learning Center in Columbia are pushing youth theater ahead by leaps and bounds — literally. There are so many back flips required by their newest TYA production of Bring It On: The Musical that they had to fill out their ranks with real high school cheerleaders and gymnasts.
The result, as staged by top-flight Director Stephanie Lynn Williams, is a show with so much pep and drive that just sitting in the audience may make you feel like you should be getting ready for the prom.
This 2011 musical was loosely based on the popular 2000 movie and its sequels about cheerleading teams vying for first place in a hyper competitive field. That puts the emphasis for any stage adaptation upon spectacle and acrobatics. So don’t go expecting Sondheim when these characters burst into song.
Actually, the bar has been raised so high in musical theater that reading what critics have said about this show just isn’t worth the effort. The book by Jeff Whitty is not meant as anything more than entertainment, with a few universal adolescent themes and just enough narrative embroidery to make them seem fresh.
The music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tom Kitt and Amanda Green are bouncy when needed and expressive of the characters. There is no “Climb Every Mountain” here, but the enthusiastic audience on opening night found plenty to inspire them in the big ensemble numbers like “What I Was Born To Do,” “Cross the Line” and “Bring It On.”
Contributing to the spontaneity and excitement of the performances was the theater’s live musical accompaniment. The always reliable Tiffany Underwood Holmes conducted a splendidly cohesive four-piece band of keyboard, drums (Evander McLean), guitar (Christian Patterson) and bass (Brandon Bickham, Andrew Verbus).
TYA is the Drama Learning Center’s teen professional company, open only through auditions. So there is a level of commitment by these performers you don’t see as uniformly in high school productions. Much of the current show has been double-cast, so which performers you see doing some roles depends on the luck of the draw.
At the June 13th performance, Brittany George winningly headed the cast as Campbell, the cheerleading captain of the Truman High team who undergoes a personal odyssey in character-building when she is mysteriously redistricted into a rival school. (Annabelle Anderson plays Campbell on other nights).
As Eva, the former-friend-turned-rival, the wonderful Hailey Ibberson returns from her memorable lead role in last winter’s Carrie. Here she brings all that fresh-faced, victimized innocence to a character who shows she can claw and backstab with the best of them (or the worst of them?). (Lila Cooper is Eva on other nights.)
Newcomer Kendall Grove, a junior at Mount Hebron, gives a very assured comic performance as Skylar, the Truman team’s self-loving fashion-arbiter. She gets most of the evening’s best laugh lines and delivers them with characteristic sassiness. (Shannon Taylor plays Skylar on some nights.)
Company veteran Tori Stroud again shows her own comedy acting chops as Bridget, the Truman High mascot and perpetual BGF who is the only other one to be redistricted along with Campbell. (Another company veteran, Lauren Alberg, plays Bridget on other nights.)
TYA has a new rising star in Azaria Oglesby, who plays Danielle in all performances. Already exuding stage confidence, smooth dance moves and a killer vocal delivery, she makes it easy to see why Danielle would be the coolest girl at Jackson High. She is the one that Campbell and Bridget must win over if they hope to build up a cheerleading squad worthy of taking on Truman.
Special kudos must be made to the scene-stealing turns done by Jason Quackenbush in a brave bit of gender-bending as LaCienega; and to handsome Dumar Valencia as Randall, with his ultra-suave vocalizing in the number “Enjoy the Trip.”
Drama Learning Center does not mike voices, which is always a mixed blessing in this intimate playhouse. There are no barriers between singer and audience, no mechanical intrusions nor doubts about where the singing is coming from. The downside is that sometimes lyrics are lost, especially when singers forget to project or turn their heads upstage.
Still, it’s not a major problem in a show that is so constantly on the move.
Bring It On makes a very good showcase for TYA, and a good fit for the Drama Learning Center. It’s the perfect show to demonstrate this brave little company’s “leaps-and-bounds” ambitions.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Bring It On plays on weekends through June 21, 2015 at the Drama Learning Center – 9130-I Red Branch Road, in Columbia, MD. For tickets m call the box office at (410)997-9352, or purchase them online.