“Being a cheerleader is like being a marine,” declares one awesomely athletic teenager near the outset of this 2011 musical, receiving its UK premiere at the hands of the British Theatre Academy. She’s only half-jesting. The musical, loosely based on the 2000 film and with music and lyrics co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (with Tom Kitt and Amanda Green respectively), lifts the lid on American high school cheerleading rivalry. It uncovers a world seething with ambition, jealousy and dark practices.
If you are hoping for a musical on a level with Hamilton (later) or In the Heights (earlier) this certainly isn’t it, but it is a fizzing, witty show peppered with Miranda’s sharp, sassy lyrics. And it is given a joyous production by Ewan Jones, who channels the blazing energy of his young performers (BTA offers training for under 23-year-olds) to give proceedings an authentic edge and fill the small stage with the hope and anguish of adolescence.
The plot itself would blow over in a light breeze. Campbell, conscientious cheerleader captain (played with poise by Robin McIntyre), is driving the squad to victory when all of a sudden she is transferred to another school. This peculiar turn of events is down to ruthless schoolgirl Eva, who manages to engineer not only Campbell’s move, but also bad grades for another contender and a nasty infection for a third and so grab power for herself. No time to wonder what sort of education system allows teenage girls to tidy their rivals out of the way like this — we are suddenly in rougher, tougher Jackson High, where Campbell and her perfectly honed squad moves don’t cut much ice with the local hip-hop crew and their leader Danielle. Campbell must learn some hard lessons about herself — and about what really matters — in her path to acceptance.
Behind all the high kicks and somersaults lie some serious topical issues: inclusion (the Jackson High crew is notably diverse), leadership, betrayal, forgiveness and, above all, what winning really means. There are some nice satirical moments too about the cheesiness of high school musicals: one soulful ballad gets cut off mid-flow; meanie Skylar (enjoyable Isabella Pappas) grumbles about her lack of personal growth during the show.
But what makes this production is the sheer dynamism of the ensemble, who relish the propulsive, genre-hopping music. Stand-out performances include Matthew Brazier as the sinuously lithe La Cienega, Chisara Agor as Danielle and Kristine Kruse as Bridget, an outsider who blossoms at Jackson High. Frothy, frantic, but fun.
To September 1, southwarkplayhouse.co.uk
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