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Bring It On: The Musical -- Complete With Stunts & Cheers

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Last time out, playwright Jeff Whitty put foul-mouthed puppets on stage and won a Tony for Avenue Q.

So why go from that to Bring It On: The Musical (soon to be at Houston's Hobby Center courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars), spun off from the 2000 movie starring Kirsten Dunst?

After finishing Avenue Q, Whitty said he was cautious about choosing his next project. "I wanted to be really really careful to make sure there were things I would want to go see and would be fun to work on. I wanted to do something that was just pure pure fun, pure entertainment. So cheerleaders really fit the bill."

Whitty was never a cheerleader himself ("No, I can barely run across the room and still be standing," he told Art Attack.) But he grew interested in it after seeing a segment on ESPN about cheerleaders. Then he watched a regional cheer competition "and I was just dazzled." As for people who don't have a lot of respect for the sport of cheerleading, Whitty responded:

"I think these people are going to be really surprised at what these girls are doing," Whitty said. "These women are tough women. I would not want to be in a cage match with any one of them."

Which is not to say the treatment in the musical is totally reverent. "We do put a pin in it now and then," he said. "The hardest character for me to write in the show, her name was Skylar. And I knew we had to have a bitchy character because we had cheerleaders, but I didn't want to make her just your run-of-the-mill girl who says bitchy, mean things because I wanted the audience to really like her. Those were the scenes that got rewritten the most."

In the musical, cheerleaders from two schools are competing against each other, one from a more privileged school and the other, not. The cast includes members who were with the show at its inception at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta such as Adrienne Warren (seen in a national tour of Dreamgirls), who portrays Danielle, and Ryann Redmond, who plays Bridget. They are joined by Taylor Louderman as Campbell and Elle McLemore as Eva.

"It's been a very interesting gestation period," said Whitty of the show. "We did an initial production in Atlanta a year ago. Then we took several months to revamp what we learned in Atlanta. So we did a lot of very good changes to put into the national tour. It started in L.A. and it's in San Francisco now. Then Denver, then hopscotching across the country. We will be putting in revisions continually."

"There is an element of risk for sure. The people doing the truly difficult stunts are all, they've been cheerleaders their entire life," Whitty said. "There's a huge emphasis on safety. They run every single stunt before the show as a sort of warmup. Yes, it's definitely risky, but as I've learned over my years in theater, every show is risky. In Avenue Q we had two sprained ankles in our original run."

Whitty started out as an actor and a playwright but never thought he was going to be involved in musicals. He fell into it with Avenue Q when some producers needed someone to write the book for a show about puppets that had some great songs but lacked a coherent story line. Then he found out how hard musicals are to write. "It's like quicksand a little bit. You start with a vision of the show and as you develop a script, there's just rewriting and rewritings."

Next up is a Tales of the City production in San Francisco, and then he plans to step away from musicals for a while and return to non-musical playwriting as well as a book he's been working on. Whitty, who is gay, gained a certain amount of attention for other reasons when he objected to some gay jokes told by Jay Leno.

Eventually, Whitty said he decided he didn't want to be any sort of watchdog over the talk show host or anyone else's brand of humor and bowed out. "I decided to sort of speak through my work, which is about community and inclusiveness."

But being gay has had some effect on his writing, Whitty said. "Growing up as an outsider sort of gave me a very strong point of view and allowed me to develop my sense of humor as a survival tool. I don't really try to push an agenda especially. In Bring It On, one of the characters is transgender and it's been a complete joy writing this character and watching the audience's experience of her because I never discuss it in the show. It's not a point or a political statement; she is just sort of there with everybody else. And the audience responds very very strongly and warmly to her."

Bring It On is a musical comedy ramped up by the cheerleading component, Whitty said. People who come will be surprised, he promised. "For anyone who has a dream and wants it really really badly, that's something audiences can hook into."

Theatre Under the Stars' production of Bring It On: The Musical runs January 24 through February 5 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For ticket information call 713-558-8887 or go to www.tuts.com

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