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“Bring it On: The Musical” – It actually does bring it (who knew?)

The cast of the national tour of "Bring It On: The Musical"

I have seen shows which left me elated. I have seen shows which left me pondering a message. I have seen shows which left me humming tunes for weeks. I’ve rarely seen one which left me exhausted. At the end of “Bring it On: The Musical” just opened at the Ahmanson Theatre, that was me. The show, based loosely on the 2000 film, ends up a cross between an uplifting after school special, a lesson on tolerance and individuality, and a wildly energetic circus act.

You know something important about the show when you read the bios of the “ensemble,” most of whom have extensive cheerleading experience. The poses, the extensive use of elaborate throws, and the distinct sense of watching acrobats working without a net get one’s adrenaline popping from the moment the curtain rises. In the midst of all these acrobatics, the simple – one might say simplistic – story ends up shining as well.

It’s a predicable plot. A girl whose life has revolved around cheerleading at her stereotypically upper middle class white suburban school is suddenly transferred to a far more diverse, poor and inner city one. What begins as a rather uncomfortable (at least to the audience) dose of racial and urban stereotypes evolves into a lesson on individuality and tolerance. This girl, who thinks she knows everything, has a lot to learn. When she does, she uses what she’s learned to build a team which can teach the rest of the cheerleading world a thing or two.

Almost all of this is told in song, and in a style which helps define each setting. The music and lyrics of Tom Kitt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Amanda Green capture the flavor of high school life, from pop to hip-hop. That comes together with a sound design by Brian Ronan that lets the the music get loud enough for modernity, yet allows for the lyrics to not only stand out but be understandable. Put this together with the wild cheerleading moves and the whole is positively captivating, in a kind of unassuming way.

Taylor Louderman leads the cast as Campbell, the insulated kid whose dreams are dashed by her transfer. She sings with authority and handles her many elaborate routines with energy and style. Elle McLemore makes fun work of the deceptively innocent sophomore who plots Campbell’s downfall for her own ends. Adrienne Warren rises above the stereotypes to make Danielle, the “crew” leader of Campbell’s new school, an amusing and sympathetic character.

Along with these strong leads, standouts in the enormous cast include Ryann Redmond as the earnest but heavy Bridget, Nicolas Womack energetically individual as the guy she can’t believe finds her attractive, and Gregory Haney bringing humor, dignity and enthusiasm to the transsexual among Danielle’s followers.

A nod must also go to David Korins’ entirely video-based “set,” in which a series of screens swoop and weave between and around the performers, shining as walls, landscapes, score boards, and anything else necessary to the action. Indeed, the set sometimes appears as energized as the actors.

“Bring it On: The Musical” is certainly not “Les Miserables,” or even “South Pacific.” It has few illusions to any kind of sophisticated grandeur, literary or otherwise, leaning more on being a very fast-paced and entertaining spectacle. Yet, in the midst of all the intensity, gentle and often humorous reminders to look more than skin (or income) deep give a moral nudge toward respecting the individual. In the end, it does have something to say.

To be frank, I dreaded going to see “Bring it On,” which I assumed would be either trite or ponderous. That it is only mildly the first, and definitely not the latter was a startling surprise. You just can’t help but smile at this thing, which I believe is great family fare, at least if you’re in the kind of family which wants kids to learn about tolerance and not prejudging people. And the gymnastic feats really are absolutely breathtaking.

What: “Bring it On: The Musical” When: Through December 10, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $120 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

The Fog of Nostalgia in “Life Could Be a Dream” at La Mirada

Nostalgia is in. Actually that’s not news. As the Boomers have aged into retirement, they have consistently reached back into what we see as a more innocent time. It’s an attractive, if somewhat two-dimensional vision of that period before Woodstock or Watergate, when songs spoke of blue moons and teen angels, and Mr. Sandman could bring a dream date.

The theatrical homage to this fondness for the Eisenhower years has taken root on stage, in such gems as “Forever Plaid,” which gleefully celebrated the period’s kitsch with a fictional “guy group”, or “The Marvelous Wondrettes” whose earnest high school girl group experiences prom night fame, then reflects upon it from their actual adult lives. Both of these are sweet, still understanding the boundaries of a period seen only through its rather rose colored popular tunes.

The creator of “The Marvelous Wondrettes,” Roger Bean, has a second venture into this realm with “Life Could Be a Dream,” now at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, courtesy of McCoy Rigby Entertainment. Although it has more plot than either of the above, it suffers from a split personality. Well performed, its salute to late 50s music cannot figure out if it’s a send-up of earnest amateur singing groups, with its obligatory caricatures, or an earnest love story.

Denny the post-high school loafer (Daniel Tatar), Eugene the dorky and uncoordinated geek (Jim Holdridge) and Wally the minister’s kid (Ryan Castellino), all of them refugees from high school glee club, decide to organize, rehearse and compete as a group to win a recording contract through a local radio station. They get sponsorship from an auto repair shop, represented by the owner’s daughter Lois (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Skip, the mechanic she brings along who classes up the boys’ act (Doug Carpenter).

There’s a lot of singing of familiar tunes as they rehearse, and as a relationship simmers between Lois and Skip, who is apparently forbidden fruit for a business owner’s daughter. When they are singing in dream sequences, or even when dealing with the more serious side of the Skip-Lois thing, everyone is profoundly professional. When they are acting in the guise of the guy group trying to get ahead, they are comically ill equipped for success. The division leaves one unconnected to the characters, as there is no way for them to consistently be one thing or another.

The talented, game cast sings very well – a delight when dealing with the tight harmony of that era. Their movements remind one quickly of the innate silliness of the choreographed groups of the period. Still, there are moments when traditionally male songs (even if originally sung in falsetto) are handed to Lois, and one trips on one’s nostalgia. A girl doesn’t sing “Only You,” any more than a girl sings “Lonely Teardrops.” The premise of these things is to keep sacred the arrangements and settings of these classic songs. It is a mild violation to skew things that far.

Particular nods go to Holdridge and Castellino, who play their stereotypes to the hilt. If only the consistency issues kept one from losing interest in them. By the predictable ending one wishes that “Life Could Be a Dream” had settled for being a really cool, costumed concert instead of creating plots that don’t intertwine well.

What: “Life Could Be a Dream” When: Through November 20, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $35 – $50 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

An Old Friend in the House: Cats at Candlelight

The cast of "Cats" at Candlelight Pavilion


I’m sure there will be arguments from all those folks who lined up time after time to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” so long firmly entrenched at the Ahmanson, but I believe the best post-Tim Rice work for Webber was his score for “Cats.” Yes, it’s equally repetitive, but there is far more consistent energy to the piece, and the music tends toward far greater complexity than the formulaic hit-song-producers which followed.

Of course, one cannot really appreciate the composer’s work on “Cats” unless the production proves entertaining as well: lively, well danced, and at least as intelligible as the first national tour. here in 1985. Fortunately, the newly opened rendition at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont is pretty close, at least as close as this kind of company could get. On their comparatively tiny stage they have managed the essential elements: solid dancing, energy and pacing, with reasonable voices and attention to detail. At least, that’s what happens most of the time.

The show is essentially a compilation of feline-focused poetry by T.S. Eliot set to music. The plot, such as it is, deals with a gathering of cats all looking for a shot at starting over: at ascending to “the heavy side layer” and returning blessed with another of his or her nine lives. As Old Deuteronomy looks over the possible candidates, various cats introduce themselves and each other, and the mangy Grizabella hovers in the middle distance yearning for her years as the most glamorous of them all.

The Candlelight Pavilion production offers much of what one expects. The dancers are excellent, and though choreographer Janet Renslow’s work is sometimes a bit repetitive, the net result has the appropriate feline quality. Director Paul Hadobas, who appeared in professional productions back when it was comparatively new, has done the hard work of creating 23 individual characters in both movement and interrelationship. The sense of ensemble carries the piece, as it should, over the only vaguely interconnected individual songs.

Among the performers who stand out in the large cast are Neil Dale as both the pompous Bustopher Jones and the pathos-filled old theater cat Gus. Isaac James could use a little more of the Elvis touch in his Rum Tum Tugger, but handles the songs and action well. Robert Hoyt’s rich baritone gives Old Deuteronomy the command needed, and Steven Rada and Rachel McLaughlan work well together (and are among the most intelligible in the midst of their acrobatics) as the nefarious duo of Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser.

Reece Taylor’s fuetes prove most impressive as the “magical” Mr. Mistoffelees. Chris Duir’s costume is a bit baggy, but he proves otherwise quite satisfying as the mildly officious railway cat Skimbleshanks. Indeed, all of the cast exhudes an essential “catness” right down to small movements when not the focus of attention. All, that is, except Debbie Prutsman’s flea bitten Grizabella. Though she manages the sense of isolation and lost glory expected of the part, she does so minus that essential feline overtone. She’s a woman, with ears, in a ratty fur coat. It means the pathos of her story doesn’t relate to that of the other characters, and slows the impact of what little plot exists.

Still, by and large, this is a fine production. The music bubbles like champagne and the performances show style and consistency. The Candlelight sound system is taxed to the maximum, and occasionally someone cannot be heard due to mic problems, but this is all very fixable. It’s nice to see this show out of mothballs. Better still, at the Candlelight Pavilion you get an attractive meal along with the performance.

What: “Cats” When: Through November 20, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: dinner and show $48-$68 adults/$25-$30 children 12 and under Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Sometimes a musical is better than its script: “South Street” at the Pasadena Playhouse

Andy Scott Harris and Maria Eberline as brother and sister, newly arrived at "South Street," the new musical at Pasadena Playhouse.


Staple American musicals, if one must define the genre, fall into four categories. The type typified by classic Rodgers and Hammerstein works have memorable tunes, intelligent lyrics and a strongly literary story line. A newer form has edged its way toward the operatic or the balletic, being almost entirely sung or danced or both, telling richly visual tales at a variety of depths. A third, a salute to an individual or group, becomes a glorified tribute concert.

Yet, by far the oldest version of this theatrical genre uses a sweet, simple tale and a lot of contemporary-style popular music as escape. From the early 1900s to “South Street,” the world premiere offering at the Pasadena Playhouse, these shows are essentially feel-good enterprises using rather simplistic romances as a foundation for lots of song, lots of dance, and a neat, tidy happy ending. A fine, facile set, tightly paced direction, lively choreography knitted to the storyline, and an enthusiastic ensemble gives this new show much to recommend it. If only its plot wasn’t quite so derivative, or its lyrics (to comparatively unmemorable tunes) so often so vapid. Yet, to be honest, that is not the first thing one remembers.

In “South Street,” composer/lyricist Richad Addrisi’s songs aid Craig Carlisle to tell the story of one of those “heart of gold” bar owners who redeems those who work for him. At the strip-pole club he owns n the tough South Street of 1980 Philadelphia, Sammy manages to salvage a brother and sister combo, support a fledgling rock singer by giving him a job playing piano for the strippers, and gives gainful employment to his neighborhood’s struggling youth. Flash forward to 1997, with the brother a lawyer and the sister having inherited Sammy’s Place, now a trendy bar in a trendy neighborhood. How did she get there? Will she be able to keep the place? And what of that young musician who left to go on the road?

The cast is a strong one, from the bar’s casual patrons and early pole dancers to the most central of characters. Maria Eberline gives her all as Cloe, a girl who drags her brother out of some small-town mire to land at Sammy’s doorstep. She embodies the tough girl with a heart of gold as she struggles to become somebody and then honor her mentor’s legacy. Brent Schindele looks more like a male model than a rock star, but handles the subtle time transitions and the wistful choices of his character with a gentle grace.

Also worthy of note are Ezra Buzzington’s devotedly geeky barfly, Valerie Perri’s smart but aging show girl, and Harrison White’s genial bartender. Tom Shelton makes briefer, but important impact as the gentle, congenial Sammy. In the midst of all these strong performers, the show-stoppers are the duo of Andy Scott Harris as the young Norton (the brother who will become a lawyer), and the gangling Matthew Patrick Davis as the man he becomes, both of whom manage to make the character a rather fascinating individual far removed from the other, more stereotypical folk who populate this piece.

The team of director Roger Castellano, who gives the show a vibrancy and polish far outstripping the material, and choreographer Dana Sloimando, whose movement and dance fills the stage with a friendly, joyous energy, almost make one forget the stereotypical overtones of the tale itself. Andy Walmsley’s fascinatingly animated set, and Kate Bergh’s distinctly period costume designs evoke place and time without spelling everything out too much. It’s really fun to look at.

In short, though the musical itself is kind of small, this production of “South Street” proves so professional and so tightly performed that one can almost forget the fact. One will not come out humming the tunes, but one may very easily come out smiling at the sum total of the enterprise. In tough times, that is a very good reason to be going to the theater.

What: “South Street” When: Through October 16, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $39 – $69 regular, $100 premium Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

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