Over the course of one night, several brave and probably caffeinated students wrote, rehearsed, and recorded songs for their own nostalgic and hilarious parody of an iconic childhood film. The following evening was opening—and closing—night.
The Black Theatre Ensemble kicked off the virtual performance season with its 23-hour musical, “Puma Girls,” on Saturday night. This performance marked the first iteration of what will become an annual spoof of a different Disney Channel classic. To kick off its new tradition, BTE chose the 2003 film “The Cheetah Girls.” The musical parody, written by Madison Hatchett, BC ’22; Kay Kemp, CC ’22; and Emily Ndiokho, BC ’22, includes soundtrack hits like “The Party’s Just Begun” reimagined with new lyrics and dialogue retrofitted with references to Zoom.
Starring Jordyn Tomlin, CC ’21; Elika Hashemi, BC ’23; Alethea Harnish, CC ’23; Lucas Gomes, CC ’21; and Hatchett, “Puma Girls” reunites the Disney film’s “original cast” of characters over Zoom. Set designers Brianna Johnson, BC ’21, and Kate O’Carroll, CC ’23, curated a gallery of virtual backgrounds: an elementary school classroom, a Versailles-esque master bedroom, and a YMCA. Meanwhile, director Danielle Hopkins, BC ’21; music director Tomlin; and choreographer Mia Flowers, BC ’23, juggled audio b-roll, pre-recorded songs, and scene transitions filled with early-2000s pop to situate the audience in the time of the film’s release.
The show begins with a karaoke parody of the “Cheetah Girls” track “Cinderella,” retitled “Michelle Obama.” While the original song was a rejection of fairy tale tropes, “Michelle Obama” is an adoring tribute to the modern-day change maker. Following the karaoke throwback, we see the original characters in various phases of their careers. Galleria, played by Tomlin, teaches elementary school choir. Aqua, played by Hatchett, is a high-concept fashion designer with a religious devotion to hot sauce. Meanwhile, Gomes' Jackal “The Big J” Johnson, once a big-name record producer, is now a DJ operating out of his car.
Jackal’s radio show, “One Hit Less Than Wonders,” broadcasts “one-hit wonders of 2003—and only 2003.” Determined to put himself back on the map, he sends out a call for up-and-coming musicians to audition to be his new featured act. Galleria hears the call while “hate-listening” to Jackal’s show and summons the other girls to audition. However, she refuses to contact Chanel, played by Hashemi, after they had a falling out years ago. Galleria then convinces Dorinda and Aqua to audition in hopes of getting the big break they missed out on back in 2003.
Now a reality star with a successful solo career, Chanel appears frequently in a blue velvet bathrobe, eating Frosted Flakes in bed. Noticing her absence at the first Zoom reunion, Jackal poses a question which is now a regular part of our remote routines: “Is she running late, or will she be joining the follow-up, or is she joining us asynchronously?”
To convince Chanel to join the meeting, the girls threaten her with litigation over “buying and selling endangered animal goods.” As it turns out, much of the cheetah print regalia she collected over the past 17 years—one cheetah print do-rag in particular—was made of real cheetah fur. The blackmail works and Chanel rejoins the girl group.
We then learn that the name of the spoof was born out of a legal drama between the Cheetah Girls and the Walt Disney Company. After deliberating over several big cat monikers, the group settles on “Puma Girls.”
“It seems that the rights to the phrase ‘Cheetah Girls’ is currently held in the grubby copyright mitts of a certain cartoon mouse,” Jackal reveals during the Zoom reunion.
Chanel and Galleria ultimately make amends over a performance of “It’s Over” in a nightclub dressing-room. Mackerel, a character who only appears in the first film, is now a major record label executive and New York City club owner. Overhearing Chanel and Galleria’s performance, Mackerel signs the “Puma Girls” to his label for their nostalgic sound, reminiscent of “2003—and only 2003.”
In a time of distance and isolation, “Puma Girls”—put together during a virtual slumber party and performed like a celebration—brought humor and nostalgia to students scattered across the globe. For those of us who grew up on Disney Channel, “Puma Girls” is a loving and satirical look back at childhood and a much needed hour of light-hearted fun.