(l to r) Erika Henningsen, Ashley Park, Taylor Louderman, and Kate Rockwell in ‘Mean Girls.’
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
This ain’t no Rydell High School or Sweet Apple, Ohio. While Grease and Bye Bye Birdie put their stamps on 20th-century teenage angst with pom poms and rock and roll, Mean Girls goes for the jugular with mean-spirited millennials at the ready to throw each other under the bus (literally) for the chance to be queen bee.
Inspired by the 2004 film featuring a screenplay by Tina Fey, the new Broadway musical, which opened last night at the August Wilson Theatre (I wonder what he’d have to say), puts Fey back in the driver’s seat (book) along with her husband Jeff Richmond (music) and Nell Benjamin (lyrics).
The predictable (for anyone that’s either in or gone to high school) plot follows Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen), who’s newly arrived in a suburban Illinois high school after living with her hippy researcher parents in Kenya. She quickly meets too-smart-for-their-own-good outcasts Damian Hubbard (Grey Henson) and Janis Sarkisian (Barrett Wilbert Weed), who take Cady under their wing.
Cady is happy to have new-found friends, but it doesn’t take long until she has a run-in with The Plastics, a trio of beeatches who rule North Shore High School. Ringleader Regina George (Taylor Louderman), her high-strung and high-heeled cronie Gretchen Wieners (Ashley Park), and the sharp as a piece of bubble gum blondie Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell), see Cady as a sympathy case and quickly begin a Dorothy in Oz makeover. Unbeknownst to them, Cady is just playing along so she can spy on them for Janis, who has a middle school grudge again Regina. Of course, there’s a boy that Cady is crushing on, Kyle Selig (Aaron Samuels), who also happens to be Regina’s ex — oh, the drama.
Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw is at the helm, putting his signature stamp on Mean Girls with plenty of tongue-in-cheek sensibilities, harkening back to his previous hits including The Book of Mormon, Something Rotten! and Aladdin. Nicholaw’s strengths lie in his exuberant choreography, which includes a refreshing physical vocabulary of popping and hip-hop. But like his recent West End production of Dreamgirls, emotional authenticity may not be on Mean Girls’ final exam.
Set against a flashy scenic design by Scott Pask; crisp, animated video design by Finn Ross and Adam Young; appropriately jewel-toned costumes by Gregg Barnes (including creative padding for Regina as she plumps up from weight-gaining protein bars); and a flood of saturated light by Kenneth Posner, Mean Girls still offers plenty of musical theater confection, especially if you’re the type who feels good being bad.
The twinkle-eyed cast deftly handles Fey’s sharp-tongued script, which loses steam after Regina is accidentally hit by a bus during an altercation with Cady. Jump to her participation on the school’s math team, helmed by nerdy rapper Kevin Gnapoor (Cheech Manohar), and you might think you’ve stepped into a Twilight Zone version of Family Feud. The plot ties itself up in a tidy bow of female empowerment (trust falls included) and the crowning of the Spring Fling Queen.
Released more than a decade before #WomensMarch and #MeToo, Mean Girls resonates differently now than it did in 2004. Teenagers, as we’ve witnessed from the students at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, are leading the country toward a precipice of change. But those aren’t the students at the fictionalized version of North Shore High. This is high capital, escapist musical theater. Even so, Fey’s interjects empowering statements such as Regina’s words of wisdom:
If you’re going to be happy in life, Cady, you have to not care what people say about you. Like truly not care. That’s what I keep trying to explain to the President on Twitter but he blocked me.
There’s also an admittedly hilarious Halloween costume party, where female students arrive as “Sexy Eleanor Roosevelt” and “Sexy Rosa Parks,” among others. The only problem is, Mean Girls’ construct is so insular it’s hard to believe that Regina or any of the students believe in a cause or social commentary other than the one defined by The Plastics. Or maybe that’s the point.
So unfurrow your Gen X brow and enjoy the kids at North Shore High for what they are. After all, they’re the leaders of tomorrow. Don’t be frightened. At least they’ll look good.
August Wilson Theatre
245 West 52nd Street, NYC