We’re at the Alliance Theatre and it’s the second act of the hit show “Bring It On: The Musical.”
The character Bridget — the big girl, picked on, picked last — is finally coming into her own at a rugged intown high school. She’s singing. No, she’s belting out an anthem of independence and the audience is riding on every note. Her curly locks are hoisted up like two Afro puffs and her face is contorted like a hip-hop diva who has lived the words flowing from her mouth.
Then Bridget, played by Alpharetta native Ryann Redmond, steps up, back to the crowd, and does a booty shake so fierce and intense the auditorium erupts.
Nobody’s laughing. They are cheering for her. Because Redmond is owning it.
In a show that has garnered critical praise and Broadway-bound buzz, Redmond, 21, is emerging as a breakout favorite. Inspired by the successful “Bring It On” movie franchise about the catty, rough-and-tumble experience of high school cheerleading, early reviews of the new musical have mentioned Redmond as a standout. The show’s Tony Award-winning director and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler said he intends to keep her in the role as the show moves on.
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“What we hope is that someone comes in and snatches her up and makes her a movie star,” said Blankenbuehler.
That doesn’t mean Redmond and success are kismet.
The business is bruising even for those who fit the presumed perfect-starlet mold: bony, implanted, hyper-highlighted. But right now, Redmond, a musical theater major at New York University just 24 credits away from graduating, is quite literally having the time of her life.
“I never thought I’d be able to originate a role,” Redmond said over morning coffee last week at a shop a few blocks away from the Alliance. “So I want to ride this wave as long as I can.”
Life imitates musical
It’s easy, and often wrong, to conflate an actress’s life with that of a character she’s portraying. Bridget is a plus-sized teen who has transferred from a well-funded, not-so-diverse high school to one its polar opposite. She must find her way in this new world.
Just eight years ago, however, Redmond was a middle-schooler who’d just transferred from a school in Alpharetta to South Forsyth Middle School in Cumming. Demographically, the schools were similar, but, as the new kid, Redmond was tormented by classmates who were discovering how easy it was to bully through instant messaging. They called her fat. Poked fun at her looks. One of six kids in a newly blended family, Redmond was lost in her new academic world.
“She was good about talking to me and her stepfather and we coached her on how to handle folks like that,” said Andrea Veltre, Redmond’s mother. “We told her that real friends will like her for who she is on the inside.”
While that advice was nice and true, Redmond found humor to be an effective shield against insults. And, in time, the people who accepted her for who she was on the inside and who laughed with her and not at her were the theater kids. For the rest of middle school and throughout her high school career she was one of them, blossoming on stage.
At home she’d rap along to “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” CD or belt out Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston songs. She’d practice her dance moves by watching a how-to video by ’NSync’s choreographer. (“Bye, Bye, Bye” anyone?) If there was a school production, she was in it.
“With theater, that was my way of showing them that I had something to offer just like anyone else,” Redmond said. “I was the girl who was popular.”
A hard worker
About six years ago her family enrolled her in the inaugural session of “Broadway Dreams,” a program that exposes kids and adults to the world of professional theater, and allows them the opportunity to train and perform with Broadway actors. That first session was held at the Alliance.
Redmond stayed on with the program as an intern throughout high school and college, where she is on full scholarship.
“This is an incredibly difficult business to break into and it’s not always the most talented who make it, but the most hardworking and the ones who know how to network,” said Annette Tanner, executive director of Broadway Dreams. “Ryann wanted it really, really badly. At a workshop she would perform all day, then stay until 2 a.m. helping to prepare for the next day, and then go home and learn her lines for the next performance.”
It was at a Broadway Dreams benefit showcase in New York just before Thanksgiving in 2009 that the casting director for “Bring It On” saw Redmond rock out songs from “Hair” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”
She was called in to audition for the cheerleading saga the next day. Afterward, the casting director asked her if she’d recognized the people she’d just auditioned for. Redmond said no.
It turned out to be “the entire creative team,” Redmond said: Blankenbuehler; Tony Award-winning lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda; Tom Kitt, winner of both Pulitzer and Tony awards; Tony winner Jeff Whitty; Alex Lacamoire, a Tony and a Grammy winner; and Amanda Green, lyricist of the musical “High Fidelity.”
“Out of all the actresses we saw for the part, literally, the moment she started to speak we knew she had the realness we wanted,” Blankenbuehler said recently. “We didn’t want actors in their late 20s pretending to be teens. We wanted real teens to see themselves on stage. Seeing the material come from her, it was very genuine.”
Knowing her role
The role required not just good pipes but the ability to dance hip-hop like it was second nature. Blankenbuehler said the team was ready to cast her even if she’d had two left feet, but when he danced with her in studio he was pleasantly surprised. “She comes with a big arsenal of tools musically and comedically,” he said.
Yet she is young and her talent is still raw. And there are roles that she might secretly want but may never play.
“There’s no way Ryann is going to be the ingenue and she knows that,” Tanner said. “She is going to be cast in the ‘big girl’ role.”
For some actresses that could be limiting. But for Redmond, for right now, it’s working in her favor.
“It has been surreal,” Redmond said, her arms reaching ever upward. “I’m 21 years old. It’s not fair. Why do I get to do this? It’s the coolest thing EVER!”
“Bring It On: The Musical”
8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 20. $25-$70. Alliance Theatre, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E. 404-733-5000, www.alliancetheatre.org.