Based on a 1999 cult-favorite film, the musical version of "But I'm a Cheerleader" is fun, but "Hairspray" lite.
Megan (Chandra Lee Schwartz) is the quintessentially perfect high school senior: a pretty cheerleader dating the football team captain, Jared (P.J. Griffith). Still, friends and family worry: Megan likes Melissa Etheridge, has images of women pasted inside her locker, espouses vegetarianism, finds Jared's kissing icky, and really likes cheerleading. In Bill Augustin's lean, clever adaptation, groupthink prevails as all confront Megan about perhaps being gay, shuttling her at length to True Directions, a program purporting to turn homosexuals heterosexual.
There, Olive Oyl-thin Mary (Blair Ross), a right-wing acolyte with her own axes to grind, runs the program with a maniacal streak, assisted by her outrageously flamboyant son Rock (the excellent John Hill -- splendidly dressed by Heather Dunbar in Chelsea-boy finery) and Mike (the charismatic Kevin-Anthony, in the role played on screen by RuPaul), a program graduate who notably retains his effeminate affectations.
So how does this good girl in a gay-is-bad world survive? For this, we consider the score, pairing Augustin's lyrics to Andrew Abrams' music -- a plum, bouncy, irresistibly tuneful bubble-gum parade that also does what the songs in musicals should do -- edge the tale ahead. Having integrity in craftsmanship, however, is not the same as possessing an individual voice and, indeed, too often it seems like we've heard these songs before. "A Whole New Me," "I Wanna Take You Home," "Graham's Kiss" -- and especially the "You Can't Stop the Beat"-like finale, "Cheer" -- could have easily come from the trunk of the team that cowrote the "Hairspray" score, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
One mitigating argument -- that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery -- is also applicable to director Daniel Goldstein, who often takes his cue from "Hairspray" director Jack O'Brien. Even so, his staging is clean and he stages ballads brilliantly: When Graham (Kelly Karbacz) kisses Megan (who, yes, turns gay), it's a transformational moment. If the score could inhabit the spirit of self-discovery that Megan faces, "But I'm a Cheerleader" would be an H-I-T.