Bring It On meets Scream in Rebekah M. Allen’s We Are The Tigers, a genre-bending, rule-breaking new musical which, while not yet ready for off-Broadway, features engaging characters, catchy songs, and sensational performances that make its World Premiere run at the Hudson Backstage an entertaining Halloween season treat.
A new school year is about to begin, and so girl-next-door cheer team captain Riley (Callandra Olivia) has invited her squad over for a night of fun, games, and planning for the football season ahead.
Joining Riley are her longtime best friend, sexy bad girl Cairo (Jade Johnson); born-again virgin-till-vows Annleigh (Rachel King) and her perpetually drunk stepsister Farrah (Talisa Friedman); inseparable besties Kate and Chess (Cailan Rose and Cait Fairbanks), the latter of whom has been forced by injury to give up a promising Olympics-bound gymnastics career; squad mascot Reese, aka “Reeses” (Gabi Hankins), the perpetual brunt of weight-related jokes; and eager-beaver freshman newbie Mattie (Charlotte Mary Wen).
Will prom princess Cairo be next year’s prom queen and team captain? Will Annleigh find it in her faith to maintain her vow of celibacy? Will Farrah’s perpetual buzz make her too much of a team liability? Will Kate and Chess’s friendship survive the Vicodin-addicted Chess’s upcoming first year of college while Kate suffers through her last year of high school? Will Mattie find acceptance among her more experienced teammates? Will Reese ever get her not-quite friends to give her a spot on the squad?
The girls play truth-or-dare, getting Mattie drunk while Farrah goes off to do some extra boozing of her own. Kate wonders aloud whether skyping will be enough to keep her and Chess bffs. Annleigh’s horny boyfriend Clark (Adam Cropper) shows up for a makeout session he hopes might lead to more.
And then all of a sudden three of the above get themselves bumped off, one of the murders an unintentional killing that we get to witness, the other two perpetrated by some unknown exterminator.
As you may already have guessed, there’s nothing in We Are The Tigers’ first forty-five minutes to suggest that Allen’s musical will be anything but a crowd-pleasing comedy-drama that could just as easily have been titled Cheerleaders’ Sleepover, and under ordinary circumstances, my reviewer’s lips would have remained sealed about the show’s major, totally untelegraphed plot twist, but the We Are The Tigers creative team has opted unapologetically to give said twist away in a poster which not only features a cheerleader with a bloody knife in her hands but declares in no uncertain terms, “Some Girls Would Kill To Be On The Team.”
Ought book writer Allen to have followed conventional wisdom and at least hinted in early scenes that there might just be danger in the air? Should producers have kept mum in promotional material about the plot twist, as Alfred Hitchcock intentionally did with Psycho?
Either option would have been my own personal choice.
On the other hand there’s something refreshingly audacious about a 22-year-old triple-threat book writer-composer-lyricist so willing to break the rules.
Needless to say, things take a tonal/genre shift once bodies get discovered, with one of the girls getting herself made a scapegoat and sent off to juvie while her place on the team gets taken by underprivileged school transfer Eva Sanchez (Ari Afsar), the only character with a last name or specific ethnicity.
It’s around here that Allen definitely does misstep in her attempt to return to the kind of reality-based dramatic moments that worked so well in Act One but not so much now that we’re in slasher flick mode.
Fortunately, things get wild and wacky again once the murderess is not only revealed but seems through sheer force of will to spook her teammates into paralyzed inaction, no matter that she’s outnumbered and unarmed. (Apologies for the spoilers, but hey, I’m not the one who started it, and at least you won’t pry the killer’s name from my lips … unless you pay or torture me.)
Could We Are The Tigers use some tweaking? Yes, it could.
Is it a tuneful audience-pleaser as is? Absolutely yes, particularly with visiting New York-based director Michael Bello keeping things moving at a lively pace and inspiring multi-layered performances from his L.A.-based, ethnically mixed cast. (Viva diversity and local casting.)
Recent Minnesota-to-L.A. transplant Olivia could not be better, or better cast, as farmgirl-blonde Riley. Stunning USC grad Johnson not only makes queen bee Cairo the farthest thing from cookie-cutter, she’s clearly got Motown The Musical’s Diana Ross in her future. Up-and-coming Southland star King is pitch-perfectly cast as Christian-but-conflicted Annleigh.
Rose and Fairbanks make for a touchingly real pair of best friends (one of whom might harbor feelings more romantic than the other’s), and their “Skype Tomorrow” is not only one of the musically/lyrically-gifted Allen’s best, it is among the production’s most powerfully performed.
Friedman adds real depth to teen alcoholic Farrah, Wen wows as squad rookie Mattie, Hankins’ much put-upon Reese is an absolute delight, Cropper adds some sexy male testosterone in his pop-by visit as Clark, and Afsar’s Act Two-debuting Eva Sanchez adds plenty of spice to an already spicy mix.
And each and every one of these girls (and boy) can sing, sing, sing!
Patrick Sulken gets top marks for both his music direction and his vocal and incidental arrangements, but conducting duties go to pianist Emily Cohn, joined in the show’s terrific live band by Allee Futterer on bass, Taylor Murphy on drums, and Ethan Sherman on guitar. (Sound designers Drew Dalzell and Alex Mackyol insure an absolutely perfect mix of amplified voices and instruments.)
There’s not much dancing per se in We Are The Tigers, but choreographer Jacob Brent keeps things high-energy with his musical staging. (I’d still recommend adding at least one full-length cheer number, since what we get are just brief snippets.)
Scenic designer Jay Heiserman makes impressive, colorful use of the Hudson Backstage’s extra-wide playing area and lighting designer Brandon Baruch works his accustomed magic throughout. Costume designer Haley Vigil’s character-defining outfits are spot-on each and every one.
Additional deserved program credits go to Matt Franta and Brandon Pugmire (fight choreography), Justin Ryan Brown (associate scenic designer, master carpenter), Matt Aument (orchestrations), and Evan Bernardin (general management).
Angela Sonner is stage manager and Shen Heckel is assistant stage manager/assistant director. Casting is by Michael Donovan Casting, Michael Donovan, CSA, and Richie Ferris. Matthew P. Hui and Geri Silver are producers.
Katie DeShan, Ashley Lynette Brown, and Patrick Riley are understudies.
Following a pair of major cheerleader-propelled musicals (Bring It On and Lysistrata Jones), one might well wonder if we need a third.
Well, perhaps we don’t really need another, but We Are The Tigers is such a rule-breaking treat that with some tweaking, there could well prove to be room for one more.
Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
October 10, 2105
Photos: Josh Rimmey