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Murder with Pom-Poms

Spunky teen tuner a manic mash-up of “Bring It On” and “Halloween”

MiMi Scardulla, Jenny Rose Baker, Wonu Ogunfowora, Lauren Zakrin, and Kaitlyn Frank in Preston Max Allen’s “We Are the Tigers,” directed by Michael Bello, at Theatre 80 through April 17.
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The onslaught of teen musicals continues. Recent theater seasons have brought us “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Mean Girls,” “The Prom,” “Clueless,” and “Be More Chill,” to name a few.

But “We Are the Tigers,” the erratic new tuner now at Theatre 80 Off-Broadway, is determined to stand out from the pack. With book, music, and lyrics by Preston Max Allen, it may well be the first slasher teen musical comedy, where innocent cheerleaders are slain between zippy song-and-dance routines. Think “Bring It On” meets “Halloween.”

In a rare twist, nine out of 10 cast members are women, and the characters, members of a faltering Tigers cheerleading squad at Giles Corey High (only amusing if you know Corey was brutally pressed to death during the Salem witch hunts) handily pass the Bechdel test. Each female character is richly drawn and has her moment to shine in a solo or duet designed to reveal hopes and vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, their bickering and backbiting undercut our empathy.

The obsessive team captain, Riley (Lauren Zakrin), insists on hosting a pre-season sleepover/ practice in her tastefully appointed basement to motivate the girls, many who would rather be home watching TV on their laptops. The imaginative set design, complete with a toilet for barfing in, is by Ann Beyersdorfer.

Against stereotype, many of these girls have a not-so-cheerful side. The hard-partying Farrah (Zoe Jensen) struggles with booze and shows up sloshed. The plump yet limber Reese (MiMi Scardulla), fat-shamed since second grade by the girls, serves as the Tiger mascot and strives to be accepted as a bona fide cheerleader.

Kate (Jenny Rose Baker) and Chess (Celeste Rose) are best friends in denial that they are a romantic couple, and their bond is tested by a Vicodin addiction. Annleigh (Kaitlyn Frank) is a religious freak who refuses sex with her “100 percent bangable” boyfriend of six years, saving herself for marriage.

As the night wears on, a mysterious killer stalks and slashes certain team members, in glorious sprays of blood (the “violence design” is credited to Matt Franta and Brandon Pugmire). Yet once the bodies are discovered, the survivors, fearing they are prime suspects, balk at calling the police. Shockingly, they decide to frame one of their own to avoid a scandalous investigation, and the poor girl gets locked up. Never mind that anyone who’s ever seen one episode of “CSI” knows that, between fingerprints, DNA tests, and blood splatter patterns, the real killer would quickly be unmasked.

And therein lies the problem. Not only is the book shaky and implausible, but under the direction of Michael Bello, the quasi-parody struggles to balance the comedy, drama, and horror. We are meant to feel profound compassion when Reese sings about being “defined by years on the sidelines being the girl no one wants to be around.” But the murder scenes are largely played for laughs. Ditto with the incarceration scene. As a whodunit, the aura of suspense is only intermittently sustained.

The show is at its best by far during the musical numbers, featuring smart choreography by Katherine Roarty. What Allen might lack in the plotting department, he more than makes up for with the fresh, pop-rock musical score that pulses with charm and humanity. Each performer delivers stellar, heart-stirring vocals.

One of the strongest numbers is when Clark, Annleigh’s handsome, blond boyfriend (a highly appealing Louis Griffin), sneaks into the house to steal a kiss and more. It’s a witty, tension-filled tango of seduction and self-restraint. To our dismay, he disappears way too soon.

Come to think of it, the two-dimensional lone male character would not pass a male counterpart of the Bechdel test, if there were one.

WE ARE THE TIGERS | Theatre 80 | 80 St. Mark’s Pl., btwn. First & Second Aves. | Through Apr. 17: Sun.-Mon. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 3 p.m.; Sun. at 2 p.m. | $29.50-$99.50 at TigersMusical.com | Two hrs. and 10 mins., with intermission

Updated 11:58 pm, February 21, 2019
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