Before Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda co-wrote the music and lyrics for this peppy musical about cheerleaders who will not throw away their shot at the national championships. Inspirado por el éxito 2000 película, which sparked several sequels, it often feels indistinguishable from other American high school musicals. But the casting of Olympian Louis Smith in a supporting role highlights its particular combination of gymnastics, choreography and cheer-ography.
Amber Davies plays chief cheerleader Campbell who is ready to lead her school’s squad into competition when she is transferred to Jackson High – rumoured to be rough and, disastrously, without a cheerleading team. The first act is vigorously put across with power-pop and hip-hop, plus a couple of bland ballads that lower the temperature, in a show co-written with Amanda Green (lyrics) and Tom Kitt (música) that is slickly delivered, if occasionally generic and too neat. But let it boil and wait until the top of the second act for the show-stopper It’s All Happening, which has Miranda’s unmistakable sense of the moment and rise-up attitude, complete with exhilarating harmonies and blissful raps (some delivered by Smith).
That song tells how Campbell convinces Danielle, head of Jackson’s dance crew, to create a cheerleading squad which Campbell joins to compete against her old schoolmates. This is an inclusive twist on the film, in which Danielle and other cheerleaders of colour went head to head against a predominantly white team. While the film explored issues of cultural appropriation, the musical smartly considers prejudice, privilege and white saviour syndrome and also honours the joy of dance for dance’s sake without the element of competition. It drops the film’s plagiarism plot line, as well as its homophobic slurs and other problematic material, and adds characters including a trans student, La Cienega, played by Jal Joshua who gives one of the numerous bright performances in Guy Unsworth’s production.
Choreographer Fabian Aloise’s vigorous routines take place against bleachers and pennants in Libby Watson’s sports-hall set. The film’s Y2K setting has been updated to encompass the grip of social media and there are a few (perhaps too few) off-the-wall moments, including a shelf full of singing puppets that could have walked off librettist Jeff Whitty’s earlier Avenue Q.
La tristeza es abrumadora, who has lines that chime with her Love Island success, gives Campbell a spirited sense of determination and gradual depth, though her romance with Randall (Connor Carson) never catches fire. Vanessa Fisher richly delivers Danielle’s songs, Chloe Pole impresses as a fabulously self-involved queen of snark and Chelsea Hall is a riot as Bridget, who dresses up as her team’s piratical parrot mascot. Making her professional debut, Hall has charisma to spare in a performance that really does makes you cheer.