Does it make me a mean girl if I say that “Mean Girls,” the new Broadway musical based on — well, duh! — is, like, tbh, just OK?
Sorry. My mean. But that’s kind of my job.
As with many new Broadway musicals today — virtually all musicals this season — “Mean Girls” arrives with a built-in audience: fans of the 2004 movie written by Tina Fey (and just fans of Fey), who also wrote the musical’s book. Women made up a preponderance of the audience at the performance I attended. “Mean Girls” gets a hat-tip for continuing the blooming trend of girl-empowerment musicals that began with “Wicked” and continues this season with “Frozen.” Broadway, like many other industries, could use more women at the top, and shows like these may bear fruit in future generations of writers, composers and directors. (Here’s hoping, anyway.)
Fey fans flocking to the show likely will not be disappointed by the often funny but insubstantial stage version, which features music by Jeff Richmond (Fey’s husband, and an Emmy-winning composer for “30 Rock”) and lyrics by Nell Benjamin. It replicates, pretty much beat by beat and at times line by line, the movie, which depicts the emotional fireworks that start crackling when new-girl-in-town Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen) tries to find her place among the cliques in her Chicago high school.
The stage version does amplify the story in a few ways. As in the original, Cady moves to the U.S. from Kenya, but the musical includes a scene depicting Cady in Africa, singing of her frustration at being stranded friendless and far from the allurements of the average teenager’s social life. Cue a feeble parody (I think) of the already parodied-to-death “The Lion King,” with actors in cheesy animal costumes wandering around the stage.
The story then takes up where the movie began, with Cady befriended by two bestie misfits, the punkish artist Janis (a sharp Barrett Wilbert Weed) and the “almost too gay to function” Damian (Grey Henson, exuberant and engaging in his expanded role). They give her a tour of the various local fauna — the oversexed band nerds, the math geeks, the jocks, etc. — in the bouncy song “Where Do You Belong?,” and offer to be her “starter” friends.
But Cady is soon adopted by the school’s imperious ice queen, Regina George (Taylor Louderman), who condescends to let the newbie join her posse — consisting of the worshipful Gretchen (Ashley Park) and the almost-too-blond-to-function nitwit Karen (Kate Rockwell) — at least on a probationary basis. Little does Regina know that Cady has an ulterior motive, albeit one she is ambivalent about: insinuating herself, at the urging of Damian and Janis, into Regina’s clique in order to topple her from her perch.
Watching the movie only recently, I wasn’t exactly dazzled. While there are glimmers of the brilliance that Fey would unleash in her creation of “30 Rock,” for the most part “Mean Girls” is a fairly standard teen-angst comedy about the savage social ecology of high school. This genre dates a long way back, through the similar but darker cult classic “Heathers” and the sweeter-spirited John Hughes movies, not to mention television shows like “Freaks and Geeks” and the equally wonderful but nigh-forgotten “Square Pegs.” And then there’s “Grease.”
Funny “Mean Girls” certainly is, on screen and onstage; fresh it’s not. But every generation seems to get, and love, its own iteration of these tales. The stage version, with some clever updating from Fey that at least adds a veneer of newness, has been directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw with his usual professionalism but something less than inspiration. The dances, in particular, represent some of Nicholaw’s most indistinct work: Most of them are composed of seemingly free-styling teens performing athletic moves that fill the stage with energy but rarely cohere into compelling patterns.
The score tends to repeatedly fall into the same groove of up-tempo anthems that eventually begin to blur together. Naturally, the first act finale is a be-fierce-girl number called “Fearless,” led by the popular girls and Cady, emotionally echoing “Defying Gravity” and “Let It Go” from, well, you know. It’s one of the more galvanizing songs. But while Richmond has a natural gift for creating perky Broadway-pop melodies, none of the songs in “Mean Girls” is likely to become the kind of breakout “hit” that can muster outsized enthusiasm for a Broadway musical. Lyricist Benjamin, whose contributions are solid if rarely inspired, gets a gold star for rhyming “nonplussed” — used correctly, for once — with “calculust” in Cady’s confessional song about her crush on Regina’s ex, Aaron (Kyle Selig).
As Cady, the good girl gradually seduced to the dark side, Henningsen sings with power and polish, and makes Cady’s betrayal and subsequent redemption believable. Louderman preens and punishes with flair, although her snarkiness isn’t as funny as you might hope. Rather more is the quivering angst that keeps Gretchen in Regina’s, and later Cady’s, thrall: Park nails the kind of misery that’s as amusing as it is pathetic, and has one of the show’s sharpest new lines, when she compares herself to “an iPhone without a case,” adding, “Like I know I’m worth a lot, and I have a lot of good functions, but at any time I could just shatter.” Also often hilarious: Rockwell’s endearingly idiotic Karen.
These young women are talented, but I also thought at times that they could all switch roles and the show would be equally effective: They are playing stereotypes with not much flesh on them. In a trio of small roles is the priceless Kerry Butler, who’s particularly delicious as Regina’s wannabe-teenager mother.
The new additions to Fey’s book, mainly reflecting the new calculus, if you will, of social media, are often among the zestiest moments: Regina has a sharp zinger about tweeting Trump that he shouldn’t care about what people say about him. Damian’s expanded role includes a line about digital approval being more addictive than “opioids and Girl Scout thin mint cookies combined.” (That said, Henson is also playing, while very ably, a non-fresh stereotype: the diva-worshipping and musical-theater-quoting gay guy.)
Among the updates, however, is a joke about “slut-shaming” that points out something that made me uncomfortable in a musical that is aiming to propagandize for self-esteem. (Janis’s fiery “I’d Rather Be Me,” is the defiant musical manifesto that codifies this message.) As in the movie, the plot merrily turns on Regina being body-shamed, or fat-shamed, into humility, after Cady begins feeding her high-calorie protein bars that she tells her will help her lose weight. Fey is having it both ways here, getting laughs at Regina’s newfound chubbiness — as if chubbiness is inherently embarrassing — in a musical that argues against such mean judgments.
Of course in the end all the girls (and boys) learn the lesson that they should be supporting one another rather than tearing each other down, that everyone has something to offer, etc. The show’s finale is a ringing endorsement of this moral: “We’re all stars,” the chorus sings. But where have I heard that sung before? Oh yes, in the finale of another tale of adolescent rivalries and romance: “High School Musical.” In this genre, it’s clear, everything old is new again.
“Mean Girls” opened at the August Wilson Theatre on Sun., April 8, 2018.
Creative: Book by Tina Fey; Music by Jeff Richmond; Lyrics by Nell Benjamin; Based on the film by Paramount Pictures; Directed by Casey Nicholaw; Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw; Scenic Design by Scott Pask; Costume Design by Gregg Barnes; Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner; Sound Design by Brian Ronan.
Producers: Produced by Lorne Michaels, Stuart Thompson, Sonia Friedman, Paramount Pictures, Marisa Sechrest, Ars Nova Entertainment, Berlind Productions, Steve Burke, Scott M. Delman, Roy Furman, Robert Greenblatt, Ruth Hendel, Jam Theatricals, The John Gore Organization, The Lowy Salpeter Company, James L. Nederlander, Christine Schwarzman and Universal Theatrical Group.
Cast: Erika Henningsen; Taylor Louderman; Ashley Park; Kate Rockwell; Kerry Butler; Grey Henson; Cheech Manohar; Kyle Selig; Barrett Wilbert Weed; Rick Younger; Stephanie Lynn Bissonnette; Collins Conley; Ben Cook; DeMarius R. Copes; Kevin Csolak; Devon Hadsell; Curtis Holland; Myles McHale; Nikhil Saboo; Jonalyn Saxer; Brendon Stimson; Riza Takahashi; Kamille Upshaw; Zurin Villaneuva; Gianna Yanelli.