There is a long standing cliche or trope that being part of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum appears to come with an expectation of automatically loving musicals and showtunes. Much like the LGBTQIA+ community, musical theatre is certainly a rather broad church, and has occasionally touched upon issues and areas which directly relate to them.
Take the groundbreaking La Cage Aux Folles, which gave us what is now hailed as a ‘gay anthem‘, the classic ‘I Am What I Am’; the show was eventually turned into a film, in the form of 1996’s The Birdcage. In fact, a number of queer-themed musicals have been committed to celluloid across the years, which include Hedwig And The Angry Inch, Rent, A Chorus Line, and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, to name a few such examples.
READ MORE: Peacemaker (Season 1) – TV Review
Sometimes, things flow the other way, and queer-themed cinema ends up on stage, like The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, and now Jamie Babbit’s seminal and audacious 1999 debut, But I’m A Cheerleader. In actuality, the stage musical version of But I’m A Cheerleader had its premiere in 2005 at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, with book and lyrics by Bill Augustin, and music by Andrew Abrams, for a limited number of performances.
It then emerged over here as a workshop production at The Other Palace Theatre back in 2019, as part of MTFestUK, an annual festival devoted to celebrating and showcasing new musical theatre from all around the world. The man behind MTFestUK. Paul Taylor-Mills, is also Artistic Director at The Turbine Theatre, and has championed getting this turned into being the first fully commissioned musical discovered at MTFest, so that it actually gets a proper run after such a long road getting there.
For those unfamiliar with the original feature film, But I’m A Cheerleader is a romantic comedy which follows the story of Megan (Natasha Lyonne) – the titular cheerleader – who is sent off to a gay conversion camp after her family and friends think she is a closet lesbian. The facility – True Directions – is operated by tyrannical and intolerant Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty), and when Megan ends up there, she finds herself falling for the rebellious Graham (Clea DuVall), struggling in the process to come to terms with her sexuality.
The Turbine Theatre’s production of the musical – directed by Tania Azevedo, choreographed by Alexzandra Sarmiento – is most certainly whatever the West End equivalent of ‘off-Broadway’ would be, the venue being nestled away beneath the arches of the rail line which runs next to Battersea Power Station. Being such a cosy and snug space, however, makes the show feel very intimate, and gets the audience closer to all the action; it actually becomes an immersive experience, and creates a wonderful atmosphere.
The entire cast is immaculately selected, with Alice Croft as the perfect Megan, bringing in all of the requisite apple pie, nuclear family-style wholesomeness needed for the part. Croft electrifies the stage, and delivers somebody who you can truly get behind and root for. Evie Rose Lane completely inhabits Graham, making the role totally her own, and works together so beautifully with Croft that it makes the budding relationship feel completely credible, and really invests you in their romance.
The production is a true ensemble piece, with the majority of the cast doing double – or even triple – duty, playing the rest of the parts between them, serving up a tranche of different characters, including the rest of the True Directions campers. It really is a powerhouse troupe, with everyone giving 110% at all times throughout what is a vibrant, energetic and relentless performance, so carefully and intricately choreographed. So much is happening on stage, with so much detail to examine, it not only invites but actively demands repeat visits, so that you can pick up on what you missed before.
With everyone firing on all cylinders, it does seem unfair to highlight anybody in particular above the rest, but Tiffany Graves and Lemuel Knights as Mary Brown and Mike add far more colour and depth compared to the screen versions, and surpass the originals. If there is a real standout performer, it would have to be Jodie Steele taking on the dual parts of Hilary, and Megan’s best friend Kimberley; Steele perfectly captures Melanie Lynskey’s Antipodean twang from the film as Hilary, and has such immaculate comic timing, wringing out every last possible drop of laughter while on stage.
It would be fair to say that the company is so strong, they all feel like the definitive versions of the characters, which is no mean feat, and you could easily forget that other actors had played these roles on celluloid. The sets are minimal but very effective, perfectly capturing everything from a high school, to Megan’s home, and the saccharine-yet-sinister polyester electric blue and pink world of True Directions, all created with careful and clever redressing throughout, never breaking the illusion.
But I’m A Cheerleader: The Musical is faithful to – as well as respectful of – the source material, while not being afraid to expand upon it, and make some very interesting, intelligent choices when doing so. The subject matter is still, sadly, just as relevant today as it was two decades ago, with conversion therapy still a hot topic; however, this show – like the movie – manages to treat it with a true lightness of touch, never at risk of feeling either hectoring or preachy, making the whole audience think about such a serious issue by sweetening that pill through using the cunning Trojan horse of some amazing songs as the delivery medium.
It really is a joyous, life-affirming production, with a strong message of tolerance, as well as acceptance, both of others and of yourself. Having it launch during LGBT History Month in the UK is perfect timing. No matter what your persuasion, you would find it really hard not to love this slice of musical theatre, and it would be difficult to find a show which is quite so uplifting, making you feel almost like you are leaving the auditorium at the end floating out on a cloud of air, such is its power as the best natural high you can get.
It feels a shame that But I’m A Cheerleader is still rather an underground hit, or a cult film, which has never really broken through. But I’m A Cheerleader: The Musical will hopefully help boost the signal of the original, through this brilliantly entertaining crossover with huge mainstream appeal. True Directions has been taken in new directions, and this musical deserves to be a smash hit, which should run and run.
But I’m A Cheerleader: The Musical is currently at The Turbine Theatre, London, until 16th April 2022.