Based on the beloved queer film of the same name, But I’m a Cheerleader boasts incredible performances, an uproarious book and uplifting and surprisingly clever in parts score that seems set to have a life beyond the Turbine Theatre
Natasha Lyonne is a lesbian icon. That’s hardly news. While her role in Orange is the New Black certainly has attracted many the queer eye, her starring role in groundbreaking 1999 cult hit But I’m a Cheerleader is beloved by many young queer people, especially queer women. But I’m a Cheerleader was notable at the time for portraying queer existence without tragedy and, despite its setting being a conversion camp, manages to be incredibly witty whilst also commenting upon societal conformity and gender and sexuality stereotyping.
This iconic film has practically been begging to have been made into a musical and certainly wouldn’t be the first cult film to be successful within theatre, with both Heathers and Beetlejuice proving hits with audiences both sides of the Atlantic. First presented as far back at 2005 at the New York Musical Theatre festival, book writer and lyricist Bill Augustin and composer Andrew Abrams’ project next materialised at MTFest 2019 before being fully staged at the Turbine Theatre in February 2022. This second production features the same direction by Tania Azevedo but a new, highly talented cast.
But I’m a Cheerleader: The Musical tells the tale of Megan (Jessica Aubrey), a high-school cheerleader who appears to be winning at life. For others, being a teenager is a struggle; not for Megan. After all, she makes good grades, she lives for cheer and she has an incredibly attractive jock boyfriend who she will occasionally make out with because she’s very busy and cannot make room in her schedule.
Megan’s thriving life comes to a staggering halt, however, when her family and friends call an intervention. Based upon the damning and mounting evidence: her obsession with cats, her love of female singer-songwriters, her vegetarianism… the conclusion is clear… Megan is a lesbian. With the help of ex-gay Mike (Noel Sullivan), Megan’s family send her to ‘True Directions’, a camp that will rid her of her lesbian inclinations. Led by the strict and highly particular Mary Brown (Georgina Hagen), Megan starts her studies, leading her to encounter many other outcast teenagers. She is particularly captivated by Graham (Megan Hill), an angsty tom boy who is as certain of their identity as Megan is adrift. As Megan desperately tries to change herself, she discovers who she is more than she ever has before.
Despite the potentially controversial inclusion of a conversion camp – a truly horrific practise that is still permitted even within this country, But I’m a Cheerleader manages to be peppy, feel good and genuinely anthemic in parts. Throughout, it is incredibly, joyously camp, truly allowing its cast to flex their ample comedic muscles. The lessons that Mary attempts to use to convert her pupils are laughable to the audience. One family therapy involves characters finding the “root” of their homosexuality, which allows for some glorious send ups of misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding sexuality. One character claims that their queerness originates from their mother wearing pants at their wedding, another that their mother worked while their father stayed home. It’s a delicious send-up of traditional gender roles and is capably performed to allow this humour to fully come across.
The entire production centres around the character of Megan and her development throughout is stunningly achieved. The script gives ample attention to her burgeoning relationship with Graham to allow them to genuinely root for them as a couple. The chemistry between the two leads is enough to paper over the cracks of their limited interactions, and the mystique that Megan Hill brings to their part makes Megan’s captivation with Graham incredibly believable.
Most of the songs are bouncy and infectiously funny. “The Intervention”, “Step 2: Pink and Blue”, “Step Five” and “Cheer” are all zippy, highly energetic and farcical ensemble numbers with some truly brilliant vocal arrangements on display. There are also some brilliant, affecting ballads. “If That’s What It Takes” brings the audience into Graham’s mind and helps contextualise her closed-off demeanour. “Wrestling” is a welcome inclusion as character Dolph (played by Patrick Munday) comes to terms with his queer identity and refuses to allow himself to be changed, despite what he is being told to do by those who surround him. “Graham’s Kiss” is another soaring moment, giving Jessica Aubrey one of many opportunities to shine vocally.
There are some truly arresting performances on offer on the objectively minute Turbine Theatre stage. Georgina Hagen is an absolute riot as the stuck-up and particular Mary Brown, with a ferocious vocal. Noel Sullivan flexes every comedic muscle he possesses to bring Mike, the barely reformed homosexual, to deliciously camp life. Michael Mather portrays both Megan’s boyfriend Jared as well as Mary’s aggressively gay son Rock and is equally captivating in both roles. Similarly, Ash Weir pulls double duty as cheerleader Kimberly and True Directions student Hilary, bounding on and off stage with mere seconds to swap roles with a knowing wink to the audience.
Megan Hill, as mentioned before, is stunningly enigmatic as Graham, with a gritty, powerful voice to match Graham’s gruff demeanour. Jessica Aubrey is simply spectacular as central role Megan, mining incredible depth and never losing sight of Megan’s heart throughout.
The only criticism that could be levelled at But I’m a Cheerleader, with its hilarious script and accomplished score, is that it almost feels bigger than the Turbine Theatre. Not in a snobbish sense, of course – venues like The Turbine Theatre are vital components of the worldwide theatrical scene, allowing for new works such as this to get a start. This is more in a literal sense. The performing space at the Turbine is simply too small. While Tania Azevedo has done an absolutely fantastic job, as has choreographer Alexzandra Sarmiento, at using every possible square inch, there are still logistical difficulties within such a tiny space. For example, some action is lost when performers go into the backstage corners, or when they sit on the lip of the stage purely from the feasibility of audience sightlines.
With such a confident opening number as “Seventeen is Swell”, with action swapping from scene to scene and character to character with alarming speed, one can really feel the authorial vision that Abrams and Augustin brought to the project, and can really imagine how this would work on a West End stage with the luxury of more space and set pieces at their disposal. In fact, it is such a testament to the quality of the work that it can be so successful even without all of that technological wizardry. Nevertheless, But I’m a Cheerleader will be even more spectacular when it doesn’t have to operate under these constraints, which it almost won’t have to do forever, as it is a musical that is thoroughly deserving of a larger platform.
Quirky and chaotically funny, But I’m a Cheerleader is a highly accomplished musical. Brilliant casting and a genuinely touching plot, this show deserves a glittering future.
But I’m a Cheerleader plays at The Turbine Theatre until 27 November 2022. Tickets can be purchased here.