'Mean Girls' Broadway Musical Defies Expectations and Deftly Stands on Its Own Two Heels
The Mean Girls Broadway musical is lucky that Tina Fey is a pusher, because what could have easily been a haphazard film-to-stage cash-in full of over-accentuated one-liners and caricatures of characters (it’s easy to imagine actors reciting the movie’s venerated quotes like theater kids rattling off Rocky Horror Picture Show lines at a midnight screening) is blessedly a witty, relevant adaptation of the 21st century's best take on high school social strata.
Positioned as a “cautionary tale” told in flashbacks narrated by preternaturally self-assured outsiders Damian (Grey Henson) and Janis (Barrett Wilbert Weed), the story still centers around Cady Heron’s (Erika Henningsen) transition from mole to monster among the Plastics’ cutthroat clique, retaining the delightful absurdities in the film that kept Mean Girls from veering too far into the realm of Heathers’ existential bleakness.
Balancing the heart and prickly edges that ensured the film’s appeal has lasted well past its 2004 release is enough of an achievement, but what’s more impressive is the way Fey’s book seamlessly updates the world she created in the pre-social media era to reflect the way Twitter, Instagram, selfies and viral memes have fundamentally changed what it means to be a teenager in America. Instead of opting for a full-on social media satire as most writers who came of age before the new millennium would, Fey gently tweaks the story to reflect what hyper-connected contemporary life looks like without a whiff of clueless condescension.
The music, provided by Fey’s husband of 17 years, Jeff Richmond, is an unabashedly *touches fingers delicately to chest* BroadWAAAAYY affair -- which is probably a wise choice. Instead of tethering the music to the tastes of 2018 teens and running the risk of aging as badly as the special effects in a Transformers film, the big and brash tunes exist entirely separate from top 40 radio, affording the songs a just-adjacent-to-our-world quality and plenty of opportunities for Cady, Regina (Taylor Louderman) and Damian to belt out the kind of long notes that every kid who goes to theater camp dreams about.
The players deftly pull off the unenviable task of taking on roles other actors are closely associated with, and they do it so effortlessly that you swiftly stop comparing them to the people who originated the roles -- a particularly remarkable achievement given that most of the audience knows the source material more intimately than a teen knows the Instagram account of the crush they still haven’t spoken to. Henningsen conveys Cady’s awareness of her moral slide even better than Lindsay Lohan did, and Ashley Park gives Gretchen Wieners a sympathetic fragility that makes her a more full-bodied character than in the movie. Kate Rockwell nails the endearing dopiness of Karen, and Fey even gives Karen a bit of intellectual agency when the character sings about her regrets over texting nudes during Damian’s show-stopping Act 2 opener, “Stop.” As for the boy who is “too gay to function,” Henson is given ample opportunity to turn Damian into the tap-dancing dynamo that character deserved all along. And Gregg Barnes’ costuming deserves a lengthy “yasssss” of approval: the moment Damian hits the stage in an Alyssa Edwards “BEAST” t-shirt, you knew they got it right.
Louderman’s Regina George, however, earns the show-stealing performance. Capturing the character’s cool-and-cruel callousness and confident apathy in Act 1, Louderman subtly injects Regina with enough humanity that by the end of Act 2, she’s not only relatable, but someone you actually root for. Part of this stems from Fey’s book, which more explicitly celebrates Regina as a boss bitch in a way the film didn't -- but Louderman deserves special lauds for delivering a venomous song about watching the world burn without seeming like a sociopath.
If there’s anything the show could have used more of, though, it’s Janis. Barrett Wilbert Weed (who probably not coincidentally played Veronica Sawyer in the Broadway adaptation of Heathers) is the smirking, self-assured middle finger to the Plastics’ Machiavellian scheming and Cady’s puppy love that puts all of Mean Girls in context. She’s the reminder that as monumental as high school seems when you’re in the throes of it, 90 percent of what happens in those four years doesn’t matter. Her trust fall anthem “I’d Rather Be Me” is the all-around strongest number, inviting you to shrug off toxic clique machinations and just do you -- all set to an invigorating score from Richmond and pithy 'bite me' lyrics from Nell Benjamin. (Similarly, one wishes the weighty vocal talent of Kerry Butler -- who plays Ms. Norbury, Mrs. Heron and Ms. George a.k.a. @CoolMom -- would get more musical shine, but it was a wise choice on Fey’s part to deemphasize the adults in the musical; after all, no one is begging for more scenes with Cady’s parents.)
Any other quibbles with an adaptation this successful are minor -- for a movie boasting an embarrassment of unforgettable lines, fans are going to miss one or two favorites (no, you will not have the chance to raise your hand during the auditorium scene because they slice the “raise your hand if you have been personally victimized by Regina George” line). But rest assured, “you can’t sit with us!” and “wide-set vagina” make appearances, and they’re not delivered like meta punchlines -- director Casey Nicholaw clearly worked hard to make sure those iconic lines flow organically and aren’t presented with a colossal stage wink.
Ultimately, the Mean Girls stage production pulls off a feat rarer than a mathlete snatching the Spring Fling crown -- it turns a classic movie into a warm, sharp musical that stands on its own two Louboutin heels.
The Mean Girls musical is currently running at the August Wilson Theatre.