By Preston Max Allen; Directed by Michael Bello
Produced by Midnight Theatricals
Off Broadway, Musical
Runs through 4.17.19
Theater 80, 80 St. Marks Place
by Dan Rubins on 2.21.19
L-R: Mimi Scardulla, Jenny Rose Baker, Wonu Ogunfowora, Lauren Zakrin, and Kaitlyn Frank in We Are The Tigers. Photo by Mati Gelman.
BOTTOM LINE: The knives are out (for real) at a cheerleader sleepover, but this new musical isn't as sharp (or as funny) as it should be.
Someone’s wielding an increasingly bloody knife at a cheerleader-sleepover-gone-horribly-wrong in the new musical We Are The Tigers, but the real danger at Theater 80 St. Marks is the risk of serious whiplash: despite its substantial slices of pointed, tuneful material, plus a cleanly staged, energetic production, this new show keeps swerving from tone to tone and genre to genre before you can let out so much as a “sis boom bah.”
It’s a wacky ride of a plot from the start. After a high school cheerleading fail went viral the previous season, the Tigers gather with their pom-poms in the bougie basement of freakishly gung-ho captain Riley (Lauren Zakrin) to seek redemption. Practice has barely begun when blood starts spurting: someone’s stabbing cheerleaders to death, and this has the potential to ruin this sleepover, not to mention the team’s chances at being the state-wide champions. Whodunit? And, more importantly, how do you get these stains out of the shower curtain before the police show up?
Lyricist-composer-librettist Preston Max Allen, on firmest ground as a pulsing pop melodist, simultaneously strives to send up teen horror flicks and plumb the depths of high school angst. But there’s too much veering back and forth between these perpendicular goals to achieve either of them: the dark, twisted smirk of Heathers (clearly this show’s older, wiser sister) requires a more constant commitment, and the teenagers’ Spring Awakening-ish anxieties and confessions feel like small potatoes once Allen starts going for the jugular.
In fact, there’s a thirty-minute patch in the first act where characters sing a series of existential ballads meant to be taken seriously while we wait for someone—anyone!—to discover the body gorily bleeding out nearby. With the threat of sudden death hanging over the proceedings, it’s hard to invest in the less pressing misfortunes of Annleigh (Kaitlyn Frank), the pious, lustful virgin who just wants to seal the deal with her boyfriend, or Reese (Mimi Scardulla), the girl in the mascot costume who'd love to be included on the team. Even more problematically, it’s just not clear whether the murders are supposed to be funny or tragic, and that's a fatal uncertainty at the heart of the show's present off-Broadway incarnation.
Each of the nine actors playing cheerleaders don their adolescent guises of immaturity, insecurity, and occasional inebriation with convincing gusto. They all boast fierce high belts (especially Zakrin, Wonu Ogunfowora as Riley’s critical best friend Cairo, and Sydney Parra as the star of a rival squad who happens to deliver pizza to the scene of a crime), but they also all sound pretty much the same, Allen’s score stubbornly requiring identical vocal ranges and timbres across the cast. And though the ensemble writing often builds into snazzy harmonies and bustling counterpoint, too many opportunities to develop or deepen individuals' stories and voices get passed over in favor of everyone singing about feeling the same general existential unease at the same time.
If Allen’s willing to slash through some of the show’s excess and fluffy moralizing, there’s a pretty witty musical (probably a significantly shorter one) well worth rescuing in there. “Wallflower,” a frenemies duet between Cairo and Riley, surges with acerbic specificity, while Parra’s big solo “Shut Up And Cheer” both develops an interesting character and offers some clear-eyed commentary on the nuttiness of the plot.
Best of all, though, is a pitch-perfect Act 2 opener for the lone freshman on the team, Mattie, portrayed with hammy adorableness by Cathy Ang. Only in the shocking outlandishness of this song’s setup (which I won’t give away here) does Allen thread the needle, earning the show’s biggest laughs alongside coos of genuine sympathy: he achieves this by letting Mattie sing in unflinchingly specific terms about her immediate circumstances and by lending this character a musical style that feels distinctly hers.
Future iterations of the show should also stick with its current creative team. Michael Bello’s staging flows sleekly through Ann Beyersdorfer’s niftily flexible two-tier set. The offstage band led by music director Geraldine Anello sounds superb in realizing Matt Aument’s orchestrations, and given the smallish space, there’s unusually excellent balance between the musicians and cast, thanks to sound designer Josh Liebert (who also provides the traditional horror sound effects). The show also employs a pair of “Violence Designers,” Matt Franta and Brandon Pugmire, who do muster up some rather gruesome images.
We Are The Tigers doesn’t offer quite enough to cheer for yet, but with some deep cuts and whittled edges, it could one day be sharp enough to make a killing.
(We Are The Tigers plays at Theater 80, 80 St. Marks Place, through April 17, 2019. The running time is 2 hours 30 minutes with an intermission. Performances are Mondays at 7; Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 3 and 8; and Sundays at 2 and 7. Tickets are $69.50 and $89.50 (front row bleachers are $20.50) and are available by calling 866-811-4111 or at tigersmusical.com.)
We Are The Tigers is by Max Preston Allen. Directed by Michael Bello. Choreography by Katherine Roarty. Set Design by Amy Beyersdorfer. Lighting Design by Jamie Roderick. Sound Design by Josh Liebert. Costume Design by Heather Carey. Orchestrations by Matt Aument. Music Director is Geraldine Anello. Stage Manager is Jenny Kennedy.
The cast is Cathy Ang, Jenny Rose Baker, Kaitlyn Frank, Louis Griffin, Zoe Jensen, Wonu Ogunfowora, Sydney Parra, Celeste Rose, Mimi Scardulla, and Lauren Zakrin.