New York City Theater
August Wilson Theater
At “Mean Girls,” the bright, frenetic new musical, you get two wars for the price of one. First is the onstage battle among high school factions that drives the plot; second is the contest among the orchestra vs. the singers vs. the sound operator to top one another. The show is loud enough to send viewers to an audiologist.
Based on the successful 2004 film of the same name, the stage version has the same writer: the clever, witty Tina Fey who’s updated the material (“I feel like an iPhone without a case”). With sharp and amusing wall-to-wall music by Jeff Richmond (Fey’s husband) and lyrics by Nell Benjamin, zestfully directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw (“The Book of Mormon”), its credentials are A-plus. The result is a middle-of-the-road, unmemorable but entertaining musical, with appealing performances and an abundance of energy.
Our heroine, Cady Heron (the joyous Erika Henningsen) has to choose between the popular “ins” vs. the exiled “outs.” “I gotta fight for the right to belong and fit in,” she sings, confronted by “the geeks and the freaks, the strivers and survivors.”
Cady has relocated to Chicago from Kenya, where her parents, having lost their grants, were biologists and she worked with animals. (The parody of “The Lion King” opening is delicious.) Previously home-schooled, Cady lands at North Shore High School “where friendship is possible.” Possible, perhaps, but filled with traps.
She learns about cliques from a pair of outs, goth Janis Sarkisian (Barrett Wilbert Weed) and gay Damian Hubbard (Grey Henson) who’s obsessed with singer George Michaels. “This is a cautionary tale,” they say, as they warn Cady about the pecking order of self-defined jocks and stoners, debaters and dancers, goof-offs and nerds.
Most desired and dangerous are the “shiny, fake and hard” Plastics, led by frozen-faced predator Regina George (Taylor Louderman). Her minions are obsequious Gretchen Wieners (Ashley Park) and dumb-as-a-rock Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell). How high-achiever Cady infiltrates the group, meanwhile pretending to be stupid in order to ensnare dreamboat Aaron Samuels (Kyle Selig), once Regina’s b.f., is the crux of the show.
Fey’s script has Cady become as phony as the Plastics. Turning into a mean bully, it’s a “if you can’t fight ‘em, join ‘em” situation, at least until she learns to be true to herself, with the help of a school administrator, played with Tina Fey-ish brio by Kerry Butler.
Related in bold colors and themes similar to but less rich than teen shows like “Hairspray,” “Grease,” “Legally Blonde” and “Dear Evan Hansen,” the show has a candy cane set by Scott Pask and a crackerjack video design by Finn Ross and Adam Young. On display are insults from the Plastics’ vitriolic “Burn Book” comments on fellow students. (“Still Virgin.” “Has two Dads: No boobs in the whole family.” “If corn flakes were a person.”)
The score punctuates rather than advances the action. Yet some numbers stand out, lit up by an amazing cast, Broadway’s liveliest. Highlights are Ashley Parks’ poignant “What’s Wrong with Me,” Taylor Louderman’s bitchy “Watch the World Burn” and Grey Henson’s “Stop,” in which the actor clinches his spot as top banana. Empathetic, self-deprecating and oh so ingratiating, Henson, along with Kate Rockwell and Barrett Wilbert Weed are the show’s breakout performers, not only embodying but reveling in Fey’s satire.
There’s a lot on Fey’s fertile mind, particularly female empowerment. “Mean Girls” shows the consequences of misguided sisterhood. That it prefers gentility and community is its gift to this #MeToo era. Still, though “fetch” in so many ways, you wish it made time to be more than that.
--David A. Rosenberg
April 19, 2018