(seen at the afternoon performance on 16th January 2022 - incidentally Lin-Manuel Miranda's birthday)
Coming off the previous day’s dour German slice of teen life “Spring Awakening”, this peppy high-school all-American musical is the perfect antidote. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s second work after “In The Heights,” it's a collaboration with Tom Kitt and Jeff Whitty which had a limited run on Broadway before going on to popular success wherever it has been played.
The monkey’s only previous encounter with the show was the wonderful Southwark Playhouse British Youth Musical Theatre production in 2018. Then, it summarised the action as,
“Campbell is looking forward to her Senior Year as elected Head Cheerleader, rounding out her Truman High School career in style. A spanner in the works finds her transferred unexpectedly to the tough Jackson High. No cheerleading squad, no adoring circle of friends… just fellow ex-Trumanite and cheer Mascot Bridget-the-unpopular. “Sink or Swim” is the motion now.”
And felt that,
“It’s a pretty long-winded setup, taking almost 30 minutes to reach the good stuff, but it’s worth the journey. For those who know Miranda’s earlier work, this has plenty of the elements that make “In The Heights” such a wonderful slice of true life – unfettered honesty about interpersonal relationships; the obvious made even more glaringly so.”
Time and familiarity – and perhaps the advantages of a fully funded professional production lets it erase the “long winded” comment for a start. Director Guy Unsworth’s production is far faster and slicker, the action gliding from the start.
Libby Watson’s set mostly leaves a vast open space with just flags and two portable bleacher units – thus allowing some hugely impressive Fabian Aloise choreography to cut loose moves which would have Sue Sylvester plotting to bring him down. Watson doesn’t miss out entirely, though, with an inspired bedroom stealing the show at one point (and not just due to a little misbehaviour on the night either).
The songs are given a new spark under Sarah Burrell’s musical direction and the cast itself gives it full value.
Leading lady Amber Davies (Campbell) spins a narrow middle-class outlook into something closer to empathetic gold through the challenge of Vanessa Fisher (Danielle). Ms Fisher stops the show questioning the price of fame, the audience endorsing noisily her view. Both women’s’ timing set the standard the rest of the crew / squad / whichever more than live up to.
As Campbell’s best “friend” Skylar, Chloe Pool scores early and memorably with a concoction of humour, entitlement and immutable teen confidence. That sidekick Kylar (Biancha Szynal) does as she says is natural – Ms Pool making it so.
The less than dynamic duo of wily Eva (Alicia Belgarde) and bone-headed Steven (Samuel Wilson-Freeman) – Campbell’s protégé and boy-friend respectively are a couple who obviously deserve each other rather than kittens, puppies or ponies.
On the Jackson side, fellow transferee Bridget (Chelsea Hall) makes the huge dramatic compass of her character’s fortunes appear effortless. She well deserves her first relationship with besotted Twig (Marvyn Charles), a nicely sketched performance.
Double act (Georgia Bradshaw) Nautica and (Jal Joshua) La Cienega matchmade well and provide outstanding comic relief on cue, alongside the fierce dance moves. A note too for Connor Carson (Randell) the true guy who wins Campbell’s heart – the duo strike again.
The monkey had to change date three times to see it, and tragically the show won’t have further life as the tour was cancelled due to cost. It is an absolute tragedy that the energy and work-rate of the entire ensemble - well rewarded by a standing ovation by the end – won’t be seen by a wider audience.
A vibrant and hugely colourful show with plenty to say beneath the dazzling uniform “cheer faces” exterior. A monkey favourite, done to perfection. Try to catch remaining performances.
5 stars, standing ovation.
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks. Used by kind permission.