Summer Stock Austin Gets Fired Up to Go Back Onstage

Cheer up with Bring It On: The Musical

Hannah Roberts (l) and McKenlee Wilson (Photo by Donelvan Thigpen)

Everyone who loves theatre may feel like cheering the return of live performance, but the crew at Summer Stock Austin will be doing it for real when they return to the stage this week. That's because their comeback vehicle is Bring It On: The Musical, inspired by the hit film franchise all about competitive cheerleading. The students of Truman High and Jackson High will bring their thrilling moves and bouncy beats into UT's McCullough Theatre, thanks to a first-time partnership between SSA and Texas Performing Arts.

"Inspired" is worth emphasizing with this stage show bearing the name of the 2000 film starring Kirsten Dunst and Eliza Dushku; it's more like one of Bring It On's five direct-to-video sequels than a true adaptation – that is, it shares the original's DNA about rival cheer squads, class conflicts, switching teams and routines, and a climactic showdown (at nationals, natch), but with different characters and schools. If you weren't any more aware of it than Bring It On Again, Bring It On: In It to Win It, Bring It On: Worldwide Cheersmack, et al., it's because it had one of those blink-and-you-miss-it runs back in 2011 and 2012: a month in Atlanta, seven months on a pre-New York national tour, and five months on Broadway. This despite the show fielding an all-star team of current musical theatre: Tony winner Jeff Whitty of Avenue Q penning the book, Pulitzer winner Tom Kitt of Next to Normal providing music, Jonathan Larson Award winner Amanda Green contributing lyrics, plus – wait for it – post-In the Heights, pre-Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda serving up his distinctive brand of hip-hop-laced music and lyrics. The show may not have made a huge impression in NYC, but thanks to those creators and the high school setting, Bring It On: The Musical has thrived around the country in programs showcasing young artists.

That's just what Summer Stock Austin is: Since 2005, it's given high school and college students performance opportunities and training every summer in three musicals staged in repertory. COVID prevented the program from doing live productions in 2020, but even as SSA pivoted to an original digital show – Cyberstock: A Teenager's Guide to Saving the World, featuring seven short films and two homegrown musical numbers, all created remotely – Artistic Director Ginger Morris was pondering what live productions might be possible in a pandemic world, and one musical in particular appealed to her.

"I had seen Bring It On at a few high schools, and I found it endearing and impressive but not a show I was necessarily drawn to as a director," says Morris. "However, when I was tossing around ideas for the summer before vaccines had been readily available, I was thinking if we were to do a show this summer, perhaps it could be at a football stadium. And then I started thinking about shows to do in a football stadium, and this was the clear winner. And then when things started to open up, I thought about the summer heat on metal bleachers and reimagined the production in a basketball gym. It turns out that securing a basketball gym for five weeks to do a musical during a pandemic is way harder than I had imagined. After five months of phone calls and emails, I realized it just wasn't going to happen, and I almost told the cast we were going to cancel the show. On a Friday afternoon, I threw out a Hail Mary to Bob Bursey, [artistic and executive director] at TPA, and he said, 'Lemme see what we can do. I'll call you Monday.' And he did."

For his part, Bursey felt that TPA supporting SSA just made sense. "Presenting musical theatre and developing the next generation of stage artists are both central to our mission, so hosting their work is a natural fit."

Morris couldn't be more pleased about the assistance from Bursey. "He and his team have been delightful to work with, and we are so grateful to them for helping ensure this summer would see another year of live performances. Although the concept for Bring It On moved out of a sports arena and into a theatre, the heart and soul of the show and the students of Summer Stock Austin remain. And we are all so very grateful to be back in a theatre again."

Don't think, though, that the artsy venue will tamp down any of Bring It On's cheer-full energy. Music Director J. Quinton Johnson, who knows energy from his time in the Broadway cast of Hamilton, says, "Yo! I'm telling you: Y'all are not ready. This show is 'bout to be bananas!"

Bring It On:The Musical

McCullough Theatre, 2375 Robert Dedman
July 15-Aug. 1

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Summer Stock Austin, Ginger Morris, Texas Performing Arts, Bob Bursey, J. Quinton Johnson, Bring It On: The Musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tom Kitt, Jeff Whitty, Amanda Green, coronavirus, COVID

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