Being “of a certain age” I’ve often observed facetiously that the world is 28 years old. At the August Wilson Theatre there is no better proof of that than the audience, which delights -almost cultishly - to the musical version of the 2004 teen comedy movie MEAN GIRLS. When the film was released, the target audience for this musical was in the adolescent throes of high school, which is the topic of MEAN GIRLS , or, as a pair of high school nerds Janis and Damien sing out thematically in the opening number, “a cautionary tale …of corruption and betrayal.”
Tina Fey, former SNL comedian and producer and star of the NBC sitcom 30 ROCK, recreates her original screenplay for MEAN GIRLS and jam-packs it with 19 serviceable, pop-lite songs written by her husband, composer Peter Richmond, with lyrics by Nell Benjamin, whose lyrics for LEGALLY BLONDE cover similar ground (in case MEAN GIRLS hasn’t already recalled that musical). Ms. Fey has inserted some new jokes plucked from today's headlines dealing with Facebook and Trump, but much of the dialogue is word-for-word from the movie just as much of MY FAIR LADY is lifted directly from George Bernard Shaw’s PYGMALION. (Well, not quite the same, but you get the idea.)
The plot transposed scene-by-scene from the film involves Kenya-raised, home-schooled Cady transplanted from Africa to a suburban Chicago high school where she struggles to adapt to the tribal rituals of American high school society. Initially under the tutelage of class weirdoes Janis and Damian, she is eventually befriended by the elite, super-cool - and mean - Gretchen, Karen, and its leader Regina (the queen, get it?). Cady’s need for acceptance makes her susceptible to the trio’s shallow values of snobbery and callousness. Soon pettiness and jealousy (you guessed it - over a boy, the class hunk, naturally) leads Cady to revenge Regina and co-opt Gretchen and Karen’s allegiance. Through Cady’s scheme, Regina is publicly humiliated, then harmed (the comedy goes a little dark but bounces back to a joke real quick). Cady sees the wrongness of her ways, learns a lot about herself, and, in a happy-ever-after way, everybody grows up a little.
Tony-winning (BOOK OF MORMOM) director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw rolls out this staged movie of a musical, with big assist from scenic and video design, like a fast moving cartoon. Technical aspects are impressive. The backdrop is a semi-circular screen that instantly shifts scenes from high-school locker room to hallway to classroom, plus projects social media posts and texting. Nicholaw's pacing is uniformly adrenalized, leaving little breathing room between number after number after number. His choreography ranges from a version of hip-hop that one sees on the annual big dance production number on the Oscars to 70’s aerobic exercise routines and back again, briefly distinguished by an ensemble tap number “Stop” led by Damien that opens Act 2, which is an odd throw-back to Broadway musicals of the 50s. Gregg Barnes' costumes are fun, especially for teenage fashionistas.
The real asset of MEAN GIRLS is casting and the young performers in all the principal roles. Each has an impressive set of pipes, and each personalizes the role appealingly. Erika Henningsen as Cady maneuvers the difficult task of maintaining the likability of a good girl going bad and claims top billing with her Act 1 solo “Stupid With Love.” Grey Hansen as “the almost too gay to function” Damian averts his character from totally slipping back into the foppish camp of a Charles Nelson Reilly of the 50s/60s musicals: beneath his nerdiness he’s way cool. His weirdo pal Janis played by Barrett Wilbert Weed reveals a maturity over her peers that doesn’t slip into arrogance. Plus, she nails “I’d Rather Be Me” in Act 2.
The real powerhouses of MEAN GIRLS are the trio of mean girls. As Regina the Queen Bee, Taylor Louderman negotiates making a bitch likable, and reveals unique physical comedy skills in a neck brace. Ashley Park as Gretchen is a perfect bundle of teenage, nervous insecurities – “I’m like an Iphone. I have a lot of good functions but then I can sometimes shatter.” The real star of the show, however, is Kate Rockwell as Karen, who redefines Barbie Doll, dumb blonde, airhead and Valley Girl all at the same time with impeccable timing and winning charm.
I could bemoan the commercialization of the Broadway musical: no matter how professionally or slickly staged, MEAN GIRLS is more a marketable product than artistic labor, blah, blah, blah, but MEAN GIRLS carries a positive contemporary message about the cruelties of peer pressure and bullying. It leaves millennial theatergoers feeling better about themselves and maybe the world outside. (With a toe-tapping finale called “I See Stars” it should.) I could lament too the juvenilization of the Broadway musical but that wouldn’t occur to me if I were 28 year old, and I am not. Definitely not.