REVIEW: “Mean Girls” is fetch!
Tina Fey’s 2004 modern cult classic film “Mean Girls” neatly skewered the dreadful splendor of high school power dynamics as a delicious anthropology inspired by Rosalind Wiseman's 2002 book “Queen Bees and Wannabes”. Not to be outdone, fourteen years later, the musical adaptation that opened on Broadway tonight is that rarest of species: a movie-to-stage adaption that gets its right, and then some.
“Mean Girls” the musical is a triumphant burst of high-energy fun, artfully written and brilliantly executed. Collaborating with her husband, composer Jeff Richmond, lyricist Nell Benjamin, a top-notch design team, and a boffo cast, Ms. Fey and co. have created a slick and sturdy new musical that is every bit as funny as the now-iconic film, and even more effective at delivering its message of self-confidence and kindness in a national moment where it's needed more than ever.
Without showing its hand too bluntly, “Mean Girls” is also a joyful celebration of musical comedy itself. Smartly, the story opens with Janis Sarkisian (Barrett Wilbert Weed, whose voice is gold), the “art freak”, and her gay sidekick, Damian Hubbard (Grey Henson, gloriously and nonchalantly killing it), addressing the audience—as they do at several key moments throughout the show—to present this “cautionary tale” of high school treachery. Janis and Damian are aware they are in a musical, and Damian’s songs “Where Do You Belong?” and “Stop” are the stuff of classic musical theatre, jazz-hands, tap-dancing, and all. This playful narrative structure sets the tone from the very first downbeat, and pays dividends.
For those unfamiliar with the film, Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen) moves from the wilds of the Kenyan bush to the suburbs Chicago with her biologist parents. Previously homeschooled, she encounters the wilds of public high school for the first time, from the tyranny of the hall pass to the tricky politics of cafeteria cliques. Janis and Damian take the earnest Cady under their wing as she catches the eye of “The Plastics”, high school Queen Bee Regina George (Taylor Louderman, coolly sinister)—the “apex predator”—and her loyal and fearful protégés, the insecure Gretchen Wieners (Ashley Park, hilariously manic) and dumb Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell, hilariously hilarious). Egged on by Janis and Damian, Cady joins “The Plastics” to report from the inside, then, things get complicated when she falls for Regina’s ex-boyfriend, Aaron Samuels (Kyle Selig). And, well, with that set up, you’ve got to know what happens next.
Cady, the math-nerd sweetheart, loses herself to the allure of becoming Queen Bee, alienating those who love her for who she is, and Regina George gets hit by a bus. Literally. “Mean Girls” is an absurdly silly and heightened romp, but it works because our narrators give it license to be, and the lesson of being true to yourself that lies at the heart of the story is its redeeming quality. That heart shines brightly, in Cady, in Janis, and in all the lovable characters of this kooky show. After two-and-a-half hours at the August Wilson Theatre, it’s hard not to emerge hopeful that we can build a world with more love and kindness, and still have fun in the process.
Ms. Fey’s witty and riotous book adheres to form, hitting every musical comedy beat it needs to while including the well-known (and expected) jokes from the movie alongside equally as good new ones. Likewise, Mr. Richmond and Ms. Benjamin’s score is upbeat and catchy, smartly weaving musical themes throughout to make it complete and varied, instead of the series of one-note skit-like songs it could easily be.
There is sophistication in all this mania. When Ms. Fey first read “Queen Bees and Wannabes”, she told NPR, she thought it “a book full of Bond villains”—and so Regina George gets her own Bond-like theme song, “Watch the World Burn” (which, incidentally, could be the title of a Bond film) about the notorious “Burn Book” central to the plot. Similarly, as mentioned, Damian gets his classic musical theatre numbers, Cady finally has the crucial “I want” song early on that was missing when the show premiered in Washington, D.C., and there are the requisite feel-good anthems, “I’d Rather Be Me” and “I See the Stars”. Act one’s “Revenge Party” has been stuck in my head since leaving the theatre. This is one cast recording I can’t wait to get my hands on.
Musicals are very hard to construct, especially when adapting a well-known and beloved property. Having seen this show in its pre-Broadway bow in Washington, D.C., I can appreciate how far it has come. While credit belongs to the writers, it is Director/Choreographer Casey Nicholaw whose guiding vision most clearly defines the mechanics of the show. Like George Abbott, Jerome Robbins, and Tommy Tune before him, Mr. Nicholaw is an expert show doctor who understands that getting the storytelling right first is paramount, followed then by crucial managing of tone and energy. Whether you liked them or not, there is no disputing that his earlier works like “The Drowsy Chaperone”, “The Book of Mormon”, and “Something Rotten!” are tight and well-told. True to form, “Mean Girls” is well-calibrated and craftfully presented, surely cementing Mr. Nicholaw’s reign as Broadway’s “go-to guy” for large-scale musical comedies.
Perhaps the biggest physical gamble to pay off is Scott Pask’s set design, a semi-circle LED screen wall that provides the shifting backdrop for the entire show. I’ve been critical of such screens before, casting them off as being lazy, but I’ve never been happier to be proven wrong. Mr. Pask and video designers Finn Ross and Adam Young have created a unified ecosystem for the production that allows for the kind of easy washes and jump cuts found on film—and none of it feels cheap or cheesy, a testament to both their craft and advancements in technology. Matched by Gregg Barnes’ carefully curated costumes and Kenneth Posner’s spectacular lighting, “Mean Girls” is an aesthetic feast.
Every stage adaption of a movie must meet the fundamental question of why? For “Mean Girls”, it’s easy. Ahead of its time in 2004, this new musical is perfectly keyed to our #timesup moment of ascendant feminism and female empowerment. When the film premiered, Facebook was in its infancy, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter did not exist, and not every teenager had a cell phone or even an e-mail address. Since then, an epidemic of teen bullying has risen to the forefront of the national conversation, and social media consumption defines so much of our communication, for better and for worse.
This show, in this moment, feels important, and Ms. Fey has used this opportunity to expand and enrich the much loved material from the movie, teaching valuable lessons while remaining supremely entertaining. In a season of too few musicals, “Mean Girls” is a standout. And that’s pretty “grool”.
Bottom Line: Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls” the musical is a triumphant burst of high-energy fun, artfully written and brilliantly executed. This stage adaption is every bit as funny as the now-iconic 2004 film, and even more effective at delivering its message of self-confidence and kindness, thanks to good writing, great design, a boffo cast, and the guiding hand of director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw. In a season of too few musicals, “Mean Girls” is a standout.
August Wilson Theatre
245 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: April 8, 2018