My enduring love and respect for cheerleading dates back to watching the 2000’s Bring It On film with Gabrielle Union and Kirsten Dunst. I would endlessly quote from it and lament that my school didn’t have a cheerleading team of its own. The closest I’ve been to experiencing cheer is attending a couple of gymnastics sessions and becoming frustratingly close to doing the splits. I’ve spent a lot of time binge-watching cheerleading YouTube videos and like many, devoured the Cheer series on Netflix in 2020.
I mention all this to establish that being a lover of musicals and cheerleading, I naturally expected to enjoy this show more than most. And it was a great deal of fun.
Campbell (Amber Davies) is captain of the Truman High School’s cheerleading team and is determined to lead her team to victory at the National Championships. But the rug is pulled from beneath her feet when she is transferred to Jackson High School where the students are predominently black. This school doesn’t have a cheer squad but a dance crew led by the self-assured Danielle (Vanessa Fisher). Not wanting to lose her shot at victory, Campbell transforms the Jackson dance crew into a cheerleading team to take on her former group.
The highlight of the production is Fabian Aloise’s sharp and clean cheer-o-graphy which was excellently executed by the athletic cast; all the flips, tricks, pyramids and lifts into the air (all without a safety net) were mesmerising. Each stunt would outshine the last and I spent most of the time holding my breath until all the flyers returned safely to the ground.
Leading lady Amber Davies was impressive as Campbell with a huge set of singing pipes to belt during her multiple solo numbers. The role of Danielle could have easily been played as a tired ‘ghetto’ high schooler stereotype but Vanessa Fisher delivered a very grounded performance. Retired Olympian Louis Smith has had his face plastered over all the promotional materials for this show and yet is a fairly minor character. He flawlessly pulls off his stunts of course but noticeably struggled with the rapping. But it was easy to overlook this as he’s clearly doing what he loves.
The surprise standout performer of the show was Jal Joshua. Although their part as La Cienega in the Jackson dance crew was fairly minor, their energy was so effervescent and each move burst with such individuality and boldness that it was near impossible to take your eyes off them in every scene that they were in.
Tom Kitt, Amanda Green and Lin Manuel Miranda’s pop and hip hop infused score includes many catchy tunes such as the crowd-pleasing number about self-love called “It Aint No Thing”. It doesn’t surprise me to see that Lin Manuel Miranda was involved with writing the music as he appears to be the resident composer of rap music for Broadway.
Despite enjoying the show, it would be remiss of me not to mention the serious lack of grit missing from the musical that the film had in spades. The 2000 film was admirable for its handling of race and appropriation long before these matters were prominent topics within public discourse. In the stage production, there still exists a clash of cultures between the white Truman cheer team and the black Jackson High School with casual micro-aggressions peppered here and there. But notably, the battle is no longer between these two teams where the Truman cheerleaders had been stealing their cheer routine from the Jackson team for years. Rather it’s between Campbell and Eva, a young sophomore at Truman High School who has replaced Campbell as captain of the cheer team following a series of unfortunate events. This means that the dancers from Jackson are mostly reduced to being supporting characters to Campbell’s ambition. Was this change in the plot made to make it substantially different from the film or was it to make this stage musical more palatable to theatre audiences? Not sure.
Whatever the reason, the central conflict in the show feels quite low stakes as a result. The motivation for the Jackson team competing isn’t as well established and they didn’t really have much time to rehearse compared to their competitors. So as you would expct, the eventual winners aren’t really much of a surprise.
Quite disappointingly, the musical didn’t do much to showcase the military-like discipline required to be a cheer athlete either. There was a lengthy scene about the importance of having ‘cheer face’ i.e. expressing exaggerated emotions whilst performing, but not much more to provide an insight into what it takes to compete.
By the finale number “I Got You”, everyone holds hands and dances together, glossing over all the tensions and rivalry that had been building up between the competing teams for the majority of the show. It’s a spirit-raising song that served as a reminder that this musical is not one to be taken too seriously but merely enjoyed for all its merits. Go Go Go Go Jackson and Go Go Go Go see this one for the choreography and talented cast above all else.
Photo Credit: Helen Maybanks