At least one of the characters in Broadway’s Mean Girls would describe this musical adaptation of Tina Fey’s 2004 not-for-teens-only film comedy as absolutely fetch. And fetch it is, whether that word ever happens or not.
Vibrant, beautifully sung and visually splendid, this funny charmer – book by Fey, music by Jeff Richmond and lyrics by Nell Benjamin – broadens the original Paramount movie – a bar-raiser for teen flicks – to full musical comedy scale without sacrificing any of the mordancy and compassion that made a superstar of Lindsay Lohan and a generational descriptor of the title.
Directed and choreographed by The Book of Mormon‘s Casey Nicholaw (and produced by, among others, Lorne Michaels, who surveyed this preview performance with the same inscrutable, puckered expression caught occasionally by the cameras of Saturday Night Live) Mean Girls, at the August Wilson Theatre, stays true to the plot (and well-remembered jokes and catchphrases) of the film while smoothly updating the high school mischief-making for the age of social media.
On a set that uses impossibly sharp, gorgeously hued LED video effects to shift settings from high school hallways, classrooms and lavatories to a shopping mall, the ‘burbs and an African savanna, the young, star-less (for now) cast is led by Erika Henningsen as Cady (the Lohan role) and Taylor Louderman as Regina, the “apex predator” and queen of the Plastics, the school’s worshipped and loathed three-girl clique.
We’re brought into the tale, as if attending a freshman orientation, by punky Janis and ebullient Damian (Barrett Wilbert Weed, Grey Henson), the social outcasts (she’s falsely rumored to be a “space dyke,” while he is, very openly, “almost too gay to function”). They serve as our singing Virgils through the hell of North Shore High – roles they’ll assume as well for Cady, the new, until-now homeschooled (in Kenya, no less) girl whose intelligence and wry nature would seem a perfect fit for the outcasts, but whose beauty gives her entree to the rule-setting Plastics (Louderman, Ashley Park and Kate Rockwell).
The school’s rigid social boundaries are neatly and caustically explained in Damian’s rousing early number “Where Do You Belong?” as he schools Cady on who’s who and who’s not. Soon enough, Damian and, especially, the emotionally wounded Janis have concocted a rather nasty scheme (no one at any level of the Mean Girls social strata is guiltless of adolescent cruelty): the pretty Cady will become a spy in the house of Plastics, gathering the secrets that will bring the regime down in all its beautiful wickedness.
But not even Cady is immune to the thrills and perks of such rarified popularity – not least if they include the handsome Aaron (Kyle Selig), the brainy, sensitive hunk who’s just so much princely putty in the manicured claws of the manipulative Regina. Like an undercover cop who loses sight of her loyalties, Cady, by Act 2, has been all but thoroughly Plasticized, helping (along with Janis and Damian) to de-thrown Regina by, among other things, sneakily getting her to gain weight and turning her beaten-down cohorts against her.
Anyone familiar with the movie knows it all ends in a high school riot, a Mathlete championship and, in one of the visual (and comic) high points of the Finn Ross/Adam Young video effects, a school bus slamming into one of the mean girls so hard that there are rumors of death and the specter of a “spinal halo” neck-brace contraption as prom dress accessory.
By that point, the cast has etched a yearbook full of memorable characters, from Henningsen’s Cady, decent and flawed, to Louderman’s Regina, a portrayal so commanding in imperial self-importance that she has the audience just where she has her classmates – you can’t take your eyes off her. Weed and Henson play the more emotionally developed – not to say angelic – outcasts with that mix of enlightenment and damage that takes one to know one. As the school hunk, Selig upends our preconceptions (and his singing is as flawless as his hair).
More so than the movie – or how I recall it anyway – the two lesser Plastics (Park as the touchingly insecure Gretchen and Rockwell as the maybe-not-so-dumb blonde Karen) – are more fully developed for the stage. Park’s “What’s Wrong With Me?” is an emotional peak, a ballad of adolescent self-doubt made universal when it’s reprised later with a character you’d least expect.
Rockwell’s “Sexy” is a sly, sultry burner that mocks Halloween’s transition from horror to hormonal and, in its way, digs into the personal insecurities and can’t-help-herself social aspirations that Fey, in all her best work, has exposed with such understanding and fearlessness. Take note, for example, of Plastic Karen as Scott Pask’s scenic design shifts to Halloween mode. A look of joyful vacancy never leaving her face, the seemingly dim Karen describes the girls’ de rigueur skimpy costumes, outfits revealing of so many things – skin, liberation, exploitation. Look, there’s a “sexy El’nor Roosevelt” and a “sexy Rosa Parks.”
I can be a sexy pirate
Or a sexy ballet dancer,
I can be a sexy doctor,
And cure some sexy cancer!
This is modern feminism talkin’:
I expect to run the world
In shoes I cannot walk in,
I can be who I wanna be,
And sex, Sex, Sexy!
The Richmond/Benjamin songs are loaded with cleverness like that, musically and lyrically. The fallen Regina’s angry, threatening “Watch the World Burn” – with those visual backdrops, never better, setting the stage ablaze – is as ferocious as a basically light-spirited musical comedy can be without sugarcoating the teenage rage, stoked by a social media at its most vicious, this country has glimpsed all too often lately.
When all’s sung and done, that’s why Mean Girls still works. For all of Nicholaw’s energetic choreography (Busby Berkeley couldn’t do more with those school desk-chair combos and cafeteria trays) and a directorial touch that ignores neither pubescent savagery nor the grace of unexpected tenderness, Fey’s story – at 14, an adolescent itself – feels as fresh as your best and worst high school memories.