Blood, Sweat, and Cheers
This play about competitive cheerleading doesn't always fly as high as its heroines, but the athleticism is awesome
Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., June 7, 2013
Blood, Sweat, and CheersSalvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd.
Through June 9
Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.
The five lead performers at the heart of Blood, Sweat, and Cheers trained for months to master the moves of cheerleading. In the new show from Mr. and Mrs. Danger Productions, directed by Roy Janik, they are backed by a chorus of actual cheerleaders from Austin Cheer Factory, and the result is some really awesome cheerleading that should put to rest any suggestion that cheerleaders aren't hardworking athletes. Watching the tosses and tumbles is great fun and renewed my admiration for a good pair of quad muscles.
There's also a play. In response to June's (Kaci Beeler) apathetic teenage ways, her parents insist that she return to competitive cheerleading, which she abandoned two years ago shortly before the championships. At first, June drags her feet through the routines, resisting the pull of perfectionism. She just wants to escape so she can hang out with her guy-buddy/not-quite-boyfriend James (Alex Dobrenko), but her priorities get muddled as the competition heats up. When team captain/rival Kennedy (Halyn Erickson) threatens her, June decides to go all out and cheer like she's never cheered before.
Some improvisers can be great actors and vice versa. The crossover is not automatic, however. Each craft has its own skill set and requires work to learn it. Delivery is key. Having lines memorized doesn't preclude spontaneity; a good actor can make established dialog sound perfectly natural. Here, actors repeatedly seem uncertain about what they're supposed to say next, and appear equally unsure of when they're supposed to say it. An improvised performance that builds its plot from audience suggestions collected on the spot almost inevitably has those moments of uncertainty, at all but the top levels of improv. A scripted play, however, isn't supposed to have stammering confusion over what the next line is or when it begins.
I don't know if writers Amy Gentry and Beeler scripted every line here or merely outlined beats and are permitting their improv-trained actors to work their way through each scene fresh with each performance. If it's the former, then the cast needs to work on memorization and confidence. If it's the latter, then the cast needs to work to get their delivery to match the great physical work put forth in the cheers.
Characters also lack nuance. Anybody who's seen an interview with legendary gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi knows that coaches can be ridiculous, intense, and brilliant. Here, though, Jay (Curtis Luciani) and Kay (Gentry) wind up more like caricatures of obsessive cheer coaches. Jay's speech about epic bow-making, intended to motivate the squad, does more to mock cheerleading for its insistence on matching poofy hairpieces, which undermines the play's efforts to show cheerleading in a positive light.
Blood, Sweat, and Cheers can be a fun show. The story is lightweight, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The play's rough edges keep it from reaching the same heights as the girls thrown into the air in the basket-toss moves, but many audiences will still enjoy what the show has to offer.