Book and Lyrics: Bill Augustin
Music: Andrew Abrams
Director: Tania Azevedo
Of musical adaptations, this is by no means the first to draw its source text from a nostalgic cult hit in the hope to replicate its original success and acquire a loyal fan base. Heathers, Legally Blonde, and Mean Girls are but a few screen-to-stage musical adaptations to have tried (and, to varying measures, succeeded) in this endeavour, and But I’m a Cheerleader is but one among many. Likewise, the queer coming-of-age story is a popular trope for the contemporary musical: you need only look to the likes of The Prom and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, to see that.
So, what does But I’m A Cheerleader have to offer that the others don’t? At first glance, it’s a fresh take that might seem oxymoronic given its bubblegum aesthetic, particularly for those with no concept of the original film, but the thing that sets But I’m A Cheerleader apart from the rest is its conversion therapy backdropped exploration of sexuality. In both I’m A Cheerleader: The Musical and Jamie Babbit’s original film, we are detached from the grim realities of conversion therapy just enough to see how horrific and grotesque such practices are, all the while satirising and queering these stories as a means of reclaiming them.
But I’m A Cheerleader: The Musical is a production that feels gleefully queer, and is all the better for it. Brimming with satire and physical comedy, it is a show that is full of gags about gender roles and sexuality both in Bill Augustin & Andrew Abrams’ original book and score, and Tania Azevedo’s staging. Roles are in constant change to great hilarity, as are presentations of the characters’ gender and sexuality. Oliver Brooks’ and Jodie Jacobs’ Mom and Dad interchangeably become queer couple Larry and Lloyd, while Edward Chitticks flits between high-school jock Jared and the charismatic (and closeted) Rock, son of camp leader Mary Brown (Tiffany Graves). For the most part, its mess is a part of its charm, but there are moments that feel cluttered and visually disordered in such a small space.One issue with an adaptation of a 2000 film, of course, is that times — and the sensibilities of humour — have changed. While acceptance may emanate from the stage, there is a certain need for some of the gags that ‘punch down’ a little to be reconsidered, those that perhaps ought to have been left in the naughties. In 2022, now more than ever interrogating the why of humour is just as important as the what, and the artefacts of the original film’s humour at times leave us feeling as though we’re treading the line between laughing at vs. with queerness.
That said, as a musical adaptation it works remarkably well. On the whole, But I’m A Cheerleader feels well-structured and narratively-driven, despite at times feeling somewhat kitsch. Act One’s Dream Ballet in particular feels like a missed opportunity for a gloriously queer take on this Golden Age musical trope that doesn’t quite pay off, despite being in possession of a choreographically capable ensemble. Andrew Abrams’ ballads in particular have moments of musical theatre excellence: If That’s What It Takes and Wrestling are power-house vocal moments for Evie Rose Lane and Aaron Teoh respectively. It is in the softer, more intimate moments of desire and sexuality that perhaps a lighter touch would be beneficial to bring darkness in contrast to the pink-’n’-blue of the rest of the narrative. Meghan and Graham’s ‘first time’, or the song Graham’s Kiss, specifically, feel as though they’re swept away slightly by the joyful chaos of the production.
Ultimately, But I’m A Cheerleader: The Musical is riotously entertaining and a boldly queer new take on a cult-classic in need of a streamline edit that can give it narrative and musical clarity. Presented by a remarkable cast, it is easy to see the potential that this story already has to offer and within this narrative are the beginnings of a unique take on queerness for the stage.
Runs until 16 March 2022