Amanda Green and Lin-Manuel Miranda ought to sue. I have no idea whether or not their lyrics are first rate because I still haven’t heard them, even though I was there at a recent matinée of Bring It On, the lively and good looking musical at the St. James. It purports to be about two rival cheerleading squads (not “teams” — teams are for dancers and basketball players, we are told) but the acrobatics that have the young ladies flying sky high had me wondering if there was a difference between cheer leading and gymnastics. I always thought there was.
To get back to Ms. Green and Mr. Miranda — she’s the daughter of late brilliant lyricist Adolph Green and delightful singing comedienne Phyllis Newman, he is the virtuoso who wrote book, music and lyrics to In The Heights — they have permitted Sound Designer Brian Ronan to ignore the fact that female voices become distorted when overly amplified.
The men get a better break — it’s far easier to understand the words they are sending our way. In the case of Taylor Louderman, who plays the lead role of “Campbell,” this is particularly irritating because Ms. Louderman is adorable, she has a powerful voice, she’s created a most appealing character, she has what seemed like six solos in the first act alone, and all I can tell you about her songs is their titles. “What I was Born To Do,.” “One Perfect Moment,” (both sung twice) and the others — well, the titles will have to tell all, for the rest of the words were unintelligible.
No one seems to mind as long as the final note is that high one that allows her to put her head back and bellow, raising her arms to the heavens in anticipation of the “woo woos” that these endings bring as automatically as canned laughter. It seemed to me that every ten minutes or so Ms. Louderman was planted center stage in a powerful overhead spot, telling us something about her character that we already knew. But I’ll have to wait until the Original Cast Recording (I will not call them “soundtracks”. Soundtracks are for film scores) is released because there we can expect proper balance between orchestra and singer.
As Bring It On has virtually no male characters (there are two fellows recruited to play the love interests, and Neil Haskell and Jason Gotay play them with vigor and charm, but only one of them gets a musical moment of his own), we have the same problem with all the ladies who sing. Among them, Kate Rockwell, Elle McLemore and Adrienne Warren, all gorgeous and all talented, have to deal with their solo turns in like manner — well acted, well sung, lyrics destroyed by overblasting.
And it’s a pity, because the story of Bring It On is perfectly serviceable, and there are several comic twists and turns in the book by Jeff Whitty that take us to an unpredictable ending that’s fine. The ladies and gents mentioned above, in addition to Ryann Redmond (in the role Nancy Walker would have played 60 years ago). She’s the one at the high school prom who said: “For everyone here this is a prom. For me it’s a concert,” whose turn as a big time wallflower with no self esteem blossoms into a blooming rose and she handles that transition with comic aplomb.
The villainesses (those out to derail Campbell) are played beautifully by Kate Rockwell and Elle McLemore , and Adrienne Warren would have her name in lights next time out in the tradition of Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge and Diahann Carroll if this were a time in which that sort of thing happened.
Andy Blankenbuehler is choreographer/director but the accent must clearly go on the first category. He has his very large company dancing up a storm all evening long. He has them moving beautifully even in book scenes. They seem to hop, skip and jump as they maneuver the highly glam tech set which isn’t really a set at all.
Flying, sliding panels serve as screens on which the “set” can be flashed via film, and the entire proscenium is dotted with spotlights that glitter and gleam and when needed, glow for the smoochy moments. It’s a very now look, and it’s beautiful. He’s given shorter shrift to the book scenes; they are here played as though they are merely interruptions to the 23 musical numbers (count ’em) but as we’re not dealing with very complex characters here, that might just be good judgment on his part. At least things do keep moving along.
The St. James is such a lovely old theatre, home to such humongous hits as Oklahoma!, The King and I, Hello, Dolly!, The Producers, Barnum, The Pajama Game, Where’s Charley?, and so many more. Those seven shows alone account for more than 25 years of the theatre’s life. Not one of them gave its leading players – and they included Alfred Drake, Celeste Holm, Gertrude Lawrence, Carol Channing, Glenn Close, Nathan Lane, Mathew Broderick, Yul Brynner, John Raitt, Jim Dale, Ray Bolger — much if any electronic help.
These were all iconic performances, remembered throughout the lives of those of us lucky enough to have seen (and heard) them. I feel awful for this very gifted cast of Bring It On in that they have been forced by a current trend to have been so homogenized that their individual contributions to their characterizations have been neutered.
I would cease and desist from my constant complaining about over amplified sound at some musicals, but I feel too much regard and affection for the live American musical to let it disappear without a fight. If you want to hear how sound can be enhanced without hurting performers, without losing audience members, visit Edwin Drood at Studio 54. As that glorious production sings joyously in its first moments, “There you are!” and musical theatre is back on Broadway with a bang.
Bring It On is onstage through Dec 30, 2012 at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. (Broadway & 8th Ave.) NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, who, in his career on Broadway has been a performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
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Thank you for continuing your crusade against over-amplification. Don’t give up! It is much appreciated.