For anyone who has ever seen any of Tina Fey’s work on the television shows, “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt“, it is perfectly obvious that she knows what she’s doing, especially in the realm of being so very current and very very funny, with a knack of mixing Broadway-style songs into sitcom moments that don’t necessarily require a song and dance. She surrounds herself with talent and seems to effortlessly find the humor in every situation she places her characters. Most notably in the writing of her 2004 movie, ‘Mean Girls’, a comedy gem revolving around a home-schooled teenage girl trying to find her pack in a Chicago High School, a world as unfamiliar to her as we would be in her former backyard, Kenya. An instant classic, gifting our vocabulary with lines and phrases that are as culturally memorable as apple pie almost 15 years later.
Mean Girls, the musical, based partially on Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 non-fiction self-help book “Queen Bees and Wannabes” is getting this incarnation almost all fantastically fetch (“Gretchen, stop trying to make fetch happen! It’s not going to happen!“) brightening up the Spring season with Pink-filled joy and as “Grool” as you can imagine. After seeing the show in its pre-Broadway run in Washington, D.C., the show was festive and a whole lot of fun, surprising me with its clever updating to our present smart phone world but still in need of an edit, which it seems they have done some tweaks here and there, changing some songs and restructuring others. Fey’s musical stage show book will consistently please even the most diehard of “Mean Girls” fans, and partnered with her husband, Jeff Richmond (Broadway’s Fully Committed) who wrote the music, and Nell Benjamin (Legally Blond) who penned the lyrics, this musical creation does the almost impossible exceedingly well. They have found a way of balancing the telling of Cady’s cultural readjustment tale, a story that we all know and love (if you don’t, schedule a Netflix and chill night, pronto), throwing in every epic quotable lines at the appropriate, and sometimes surprising moments throughout, while also keeping the plot current, unique, and far enough away from the original so it doesn’t feel like a carbon copy. Those detours, as choreographed and directed by the hit-making director, Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon, Aladdin), are wildly fun and silly, keeping the storyline fresh and sassy. We remain fully on our toes, happily engaged and enjoying every modern social media reference with her young fan base cheerfully squealing with delight after each well known line right up until the end. It’s not a perfect show mind you. The songs, some I hadn’t heard before in D.C., surprisingly, and I couldn’t help but wonder if they were new or the same songs just restructured from the out of town run. The show stubbles a bit musically though, still lacking the one or two songs that might climb into your brain (“Get in loser, we’re going shopping.“) and stay long after you leave the theatre. I really had a hard time, and still do, remembering a song, melody, or even a title days after, but with the funny and fulfilling balance of old and new, we still walk out of the theatre happy and appeased.
All the cast of characters are here and solidly great, presented one after the other by our non-official high school greeting committee (“You got your freshmen, ROTC guys, preps, J.V. jocks, Asian nerds, Cool Asians, Varsity jocks Unfriendly black hotties, Girls who eat their feelings, Girls who don’t eat anything, Desperate wannabes, Burnouts, Sexually active band geeks“). Janice Sarkisian, played iconically by the incredible Barrett Wilbert Weed (Heathers: The Musical) and the adorable and funny Grey Henson (The Book of Mormon) as Damien Hubbard, the guy who’s “too gay to function” (“That’s only ok when I say it!“) steal the show almost out from the Mean Girls high heeled shoes. The two are our guides through the dangers that lurk in the school’s hallways, classrooms, and the animal watering hole that most call, ‘the cafeteria’ or ‘the mall’ with “A Cautionary Tale“. Functioning just about as perfect as one could hope, the two (“greatest people you will ever meet“) start out as our morality voices and ushers from the future, telling Cady Heron, played perfectly by Erika Henningsen (Broadway revival of Les Miserables) all she needs to know in the high-energy high-kinetic song and dance number, “Where Do You Belong?”. In this fun song, the pair of high school outsiders introduce her (and us) to all these iconic characters in a very cinematically similar fashion, but with a definitely creative Broadway style that fits the genre perfectly. The cafeteria tables and high school desks swirl and spin around as fast as the dancers on their trays, keeping the energy and excitement popping wildly throughout. It really does feel like the first day in a new school.
It’s the perfect setup for a tale that will take us from Cady’s departure from Africa (“If you’re from Africa, why are you white?”) (“Oh my God, Karen, you can’t just ask people why they’re white!”) to the most famous high school bully take-down ever (“beware of the Plastics”). The Queen bee of the Plastics, Regina George, most awesomely played by Taylor Louderman (Bring It On: The Musical) is everything that you want her to be (“Regina George is not sweet! She’s a scum-sucking road whaore, she ruined my life!“) and so much more. Her entrance, with her two disciples, Gretchen Wieners, played by the wonderful Ashley Park (Broadway’s recent revival of Sunday in the Park with George), and Karen Smith, played by the hilarious Kate Rockwell (Rock of Ages) round out the (“Cold, Shiny, Hard, PLASTIC“) is astonishingly powerful; as solidly epic as possible with the impressive number, “Meet the Plastics“. Rockwell gets to steal the show for a brief moment later with the epically funny, “Sexy“, emphasizing Karen’s simpleton mannerisms hilariously. Her take on the airhead is magnificently smart and deserving of accolades. Park gets to shine brightly as well in the wonderfully smart and surprisingly deep number “What’s Wrong with Me?” that keeps returning and developing as the show drives forward.
But what Mean Girls, the musical is really all about, is the dreamy boy, Aaron Samuels (“why do you wear your hair like that? Your hair looks so sexy pushed back. Cady, will you please tell him his hair looks sexy pushed back?”), played charmingly by the handsome and talented Kyle Selig (Public’s Joan of Arc: Into The Fire). His chemistry with Henningsen’s Cady does this musical proud, setting up the triangle wonderfully, and ending it on an even better note than the film. The shift in his character and his dilemma is well thought out and surprisingly needed to carry his character through this updated piece, although I must admit the newly restructured Aaron’s mid-musical return into the arms of head Mean Girl doesn’t float as solidly well as the movie. Kerry Butler (Xanadu, Hairspray), the most wonderful adult addition to this talented cast gets to play numerous roles, starting with the two mothers. She’s good at being Mrs. Heron, but excels, not at all surprisingly, as Mrs. George (“I’m not like a *regular* mom, I’m a *cool* mom. Right, Regina?“), and we love the duet moment with Gretchen in the reprise of “What’s Wrong With Me?“. They did axe the Butler solo number, “Stay with Mother“ rightfully, as it was awkward and out of place, but it is missed just cause she’s so friggin’ awesome. And although Butler must be happy with her return to Broadway, she doesn’t really get a true moment to shine all on her own. But it is through the character of Ms. Norbury, the pushy teacher that Tina Fey completely inhabited in the film (“I’m a pusher“), where she gets most of her great sarcastic one-liners and a few new good ones to sprout (“Homeschooled. That’s a fun way to steal money from my union“). Most of her lines zing in the same fun way as they did coming out of Fey’s mouth, but others feel rushed or fall a bit more flat, especially the lines between Mr. Duval, the principle played solidly by Rick Younger (national tour: Rent) that never carry the same sarcastic and pathetic self-deprecation, and the auditorium moment when Ms. Norbury tries to teach the young ladies some respect for one another. But this show feels less about the adults, naturally, in every way, and more about the teenage high school dynamics that totally seemed to resonate with the young hip crowd inside the packed August Wilson Theatre.
Fey and team have smart written all over this piece. On the white walls of the crafty and brilliant set designed by Scott Pask (The Band’s Visit), with spot-on lighting by Kenneth Posner (War Paint), sound by Brian Ronan (Escape to Margaritaville), spectacularly inventive video work by Finn Ross and Adam Young (American Psycho), and the clean and precise costumes by designer Gregg Barnes (Tuck Everlasting). Mean Girls doesn’t manage to find that anthem that is really needed to solidify the piece. There is no “Let It Go” or “Defying Gravity” song within these clever numbers, but as written, this funny film adaptation manages to play up all of its strengths, getting cheers with every classic line said, while not being so rigid to plot points to feel lame (“I wish we could all get along like we used to in middle school… I wish I could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat and be happy...”) (“She doesn’t even go here!“). Mean Girls feels fresh and funny, equal to the aging Wicked, and way better than the other girl power musicals that surround the show (yes, I’m talking to you Frozen and Anastasia) so remember the main moral of the story, “I don’t hate you because you’re fat. You’re fat because I hate you”. Or something like that. I was having too much fun to be all that serious about it all.