All of the original characters and iconic lines are still here, plus an infectious score of 18 new songs by composer Jeff Richmond (Fey’s husband) and Nell Benjamin, lyricist on Legally Blonde. They are neatly divided among the cast and give all of the teens a chance to express their emotions about being left out and reveal their fears of living through darkest adolescence. Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who had the same dual assignments on Broadway’s Something Rotten!, Aladdin, Elf and The Drowsy Chaperone, has turned several of the songs into show-stopping numbers.
Fey has made two successful changes to theatricalize her original screenplay. The story is now cast as a flashback narrated by best friends Goth Janis (Barrett Wilbert Weed) and Damian (Grey Henson), described as “almost too gay to function,” to the new freshman class as a cautionary tale as to “how far you would go to be popular and hot.” She has also updated the story to include smartphones, selfies, and reference to current events (the Russians and President Trump’s twitter account.)
Their story concerns 16-year-old Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen) who has grown up homeschooled in Kenya where her parents are biologists. When their funding dries up, they move to a suburb of Chicago where Cady has to attend North Shore High School, her first experience in group dynamics. Cady may know a great deal about the animal kingdom but she is totally unprepared for the jungle that is modern life in a big urban center of learning. Outsiders Janis and Damian take her under their wing and tell her who to avoid (like the nerdy Mathletes) when she catches the eye of The Plastics, Queen Bee Regina (Taylor Louderman) and her followers, the insecure Gretchen (Ashley Park) and the vacuous Karen (Kate Rockwell), “shiny, fake and hard.” When she is asked to join their number, Janis who has her own ax to grind, suggests she be their spy and help bring Regina down.
Unfortunately for Janis and Damian, Cady becomes more like The Plastics than Regina and company ever were. When she falls in love with hunky Aaron (Kyle Selig), Regina’s ex, who sits in front of her in Ms. Norbury’s Calculus class, her best subject, she also plays dumb as a way of getting his attention and fails math. Eventually, Janis and Damian’s plan backfires and Regina goes for the kill, leading to a series of unexpected surprises and a happy ending for all but Regina – or is it? The message is turning yourself into someone else and holding false values is not the way to happiness, a classic theme that also can be found in Dear Evan Hansen, that other high school musical a few blocks away.
The opening songs are merely serviceable and expositional. However, with Janis and Damian’s witty “Where Do You Belong?” the show catches its stride. Each main character sings a song that defines him or her: Gretchen’s “What’s Wrong with Me?,” Karen’s “Sexy,” Regina’s “Someone Gets Hurt,” Damian’s “Stop,” Aaron’s “More Is Better,” and Janis’ “I’d Rather Be Me.” “Apex Predator” which turns the mall into a zoo, Damian’s advice to Cady in “Stop,” and The Mathletes’ “Do This Thing” (along with a repentant Cady and Ms. Norbury) literally stop the show.
A good deal of the success of the show can be credited to the look it has been given by the design team. Using the walls of Scott Pask’s versatile set, video designers Finn Ross and Adam Young turn the stage into the school cafeteria and gymnasium, the local mall, and to a chat room of tweets. The color coordination of the various scenes is both attractive and apropos. The costumes by Gregg Barnes catch the riot of patterns of modern teens. Kenneth Posner’s lighting bathes the stage in various colors, particularly the Mean Girls’ favorite, hot pink.
The cast is spot-on recreating all the roles in the film with the same look. Actors will tell you that playing hateful characters is the most fun and Taylor Louderman (Bring It On!) demonstrates this truism. She brings poise, polish and authority to the mean girl you love to hate, and she makes her two songs, “Someone Gets Hurt” and “Watch the World Burn” sizzle with acid.
Kerry Butler, who created the role of Penny Pingleton in Hairspray, has the bravura job of recreating the three adult women played in the movie by Amy Poehler, Amy Gasteyer and Tina Fey herself. Butler has a field day showing up as first Cady’s down-to-earth mother, then nerdy math teacher Ms. Norbury, and finally as Regina’s unseemly mother Mrs. George who goes too far trying to be cool.
Erika Henningsen is sweet as Cady until she becomes a clone of Regina and as hard as nails, having learned her lessons only too well. As Regina’s followers Ashley Park has Gretchen’s insecurity down pat, while Kate Rockwell is hilarious as the dim-witted Karen who is aware of how vapid she really is. Kyle Selig is charming as the handsome senior Aaron who finds he is the object of two girls’ affections. Cheech Manohar as Mathlete’s captain Kevin Gnapoor is amusing as an assertive fellow who doesn’t know that he is a nerd to others. As Principal Duvall, Rick Younger makes all of his iconic movie lines sound fresh and new.
While many movies have not been improved by being turned into Broadway or Off Broadway musicals, Mean Girls is not only better than the film but it is also vastly entertaining. Who among us was not been envious of the in-crowd in high school – whoever we were – and those hurts never get forgotten.
Mean Girls (open run)
August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-745-3000 or visit http://www.meangirlsonbroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 35 minutes including one intermission