“A Star is Born” is hitting cineplexes everywhere, but it’s really happening in the totally charming lead performance by the totally charming Dove Cameron in The New Group’s totally charming musical adaptation of the 1995 teen cult movie CLUELESS. And just when one’s so over indistinct movies cardboard-copied into mediocre musicals with banal, forgettable scores, comes the cleverest innovation of pop music to create a full musical score in memory.
Writer Amy Heckerling hews closely, scene-by-scene, to her sassy, very loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s coming-of-age classic, “Emma”. The superficial, attractive, shop-’til-you-drop, Beverly Hills high schooler Cher Horowitz, Dove Cameron’s part, rules her motherless home (mom died from cosmetic liposuction gone wrong) tending to her rich, lawyer father. She rules the social scene at school with her BFF Dionne, matchmaking two nerdy teaches, and turning Tai, an ugly duckling stoner- hippie newcomer into cool item and matchmaking her with Elton, a rich snob. Conflict ensues at home with the arrival of a college-age, ex- stepbrother, the bookish and intellectual Josh. Misguidedly, Cher falls in love with newcomer Christian, who everybody knew was gay except clueless Cher. Cher’s matchmaking of Tai goes wrong. Worse, Tai’s emerging coolness eclipses Cher. Her hubris challenged, when Cher fails her driving test, she has a personal crisis, but, in the end, finds true love where she least expected it.
Heckerling’s ingenuity in the original screenplay was grafting Austen’s moral parable onto the mid-90, upper middle class, Los Angeles teen scene, creating in a social time capsule of gently satiric cultural commentary. Director Hanggi is on the same page, so the mis en scene -articulated by the resourceful scenic designer Beowulf Borrit - gets preserved.
Heckerling’s real ingenuity in CLUELESS, THE MUSCIAL is eschewing yet another, original, anonymous pop-rock-Broadway score (like, say, MEAN GIRLS) and reinterpreting nearly 20 songs from the 90s (and some 80s). Sometimes Heckerling uses parts of the original lyrics, sometimes she rewrites the song, but it happily results in two practical expediencies that are lacking from much contemporary musical comedy. First, the songs actually inform character or move plot. (Remember when that was the point of songs in musicals?) Second, as the pop songs are recognizable hits, pre-equipped with their musical “hooks”, the audience never gets bored. Though the songs come from multiple artists, the orchestrations by Ethan Popp, no stranger to rock musical scores, unify the sound from the six-piece band (with two keyboards). Sound design by Gareth Owen, in contrast to many rock musicals, allows for Heckerling’s lyrics to be not only heard but understood.
Heckerling’s appropriation of pop music hits is accurate to her script – in musical mood and in lyric. To open the show, Heckerling adapts “Beautiful Life” (originally recorded by Ace of Base) for a sunny, bouncy (shallow, too, but that’s the point) introduction of Cher and her Beverly Hills lifestyle. Mr. Hall, Cher’s nerdy current events teacher, croons new lyrics to Michael Bolton’s hit ballad, How Am I Supposed to Live Without You”, to release his new-found infatuation with fellow nerd teacher Miss Geist. When Cher and Dionne remodel Tai, Heckerling adapts “Supermodel” (Jill Sobule’s hit).
The entire cast is only 16 players, but the ensemble’s production numbers play larger, thanks to the seamlessly integrated choreography by Kelly Devine (pervious credits include COME FROM AWAY and ROCK OF AGES). The Valley party grooves to a medley of “Valley Girls” (Aqua) and “Groove Is In The Heart" (Deee-Lite). “My Lovin’ (En Vogue) jump starts Act 2. The frat party gets down with “Dammit” (Blick 182).
Heckerling’s most inspired revision of a pop hit comes in the revelation that Cher’s heartthrob, Christian, is gay. Using NSYNC’s hit “Bye Bye Bye”, the ensemble admonishes Cher “(He’s not) bi bi bi”. Cher starts confronting the conflicts of her superficial life by adapting Natalie Imbriglia’s “Torn”. The stoner Travis gets the unexpected 11 o’clock solo number, with a mirthful lament of his pot habit, to a revised version of the soulful “MMM MMM MMM MMM” (Crash Test Dummies) as he enters a 12-step program.
Heckerling and director Haangi wind-up CLUELESS with a rousing duet of Cher and Josh to a revised “You Get What You Give” (The New Rednecks), and the entire cast with a joyous “Kids in America’ (Kim Wilde).
Costumer designer Amy Clark interprets costumes - particularly Cher’s black and yellow plaid skirt suit and Dionne’s version in red and black - from the original film. Scenic designer Boritt envelopes the stage in broad, looping fabric patterned from Cher’s yellow plaid.
Casting, for the most part, is excellent. Cher’s sidekick Dionne engages hilariously in the battle of the sexes with her rapper boyfriend Murray. Zurin Villanueva, who plays Dionne, is tall and bony; Gilbert L. Bailey II, who plays Murray, is short and muscly. The two pair off as a hip-hop Olive Oil and a rapper Popeye. Will Connelly as stoner Travis and Dave Thomas Brown as Josh are spot on. The role of Christian needs a sexier player to make Cher’s crush more credible. .
Dove Cameron, making her New York stage debut, is the perfect Cher, claiming the role that made Alicia Silverstone a star as her own. She’s on stage for virtually every scene, Her Cher is silly without being stupid, self-centered without being arrogant, adorable without being gooey. Ms Cameron’s comic timing is impeccable. Her effervescence makes the whole show soar. Plus the kid can sing and dance. She won a daytime Emmy this year for a Disney production and will be seen in upcoming movies. Just another kid wonder? As Cher says “as if”.
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