Back in 2004, a film came out that defined a generation; “Mean Girls” spoke to teenagers dealing with high school drama and gave them a hilarious lexicon to describe their plight. For those like me, “Mean Girls” was the most accurate expression of the zeitgeist. As an avid lover of the film and also a musical theater aficionado, I was excited but scared when I heard Tina Fey was adapting my beloved film into a musical.
But nothing about the “Mean Girls” musical disappoints. Quite simply, it is a triumph. It so perfectly adapts the beloved, generation-defining film on to the Broadway stage, adding fierce belts and group dance numbers with an ease that seems almost effortless. Composer Jeff Richmond, lyricist Nell Benjamin, and of course, director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw have certainly done an impeccable job. Often when movies are made into musicals the songs feel awkward and unnecessary, since audiences know that the original scene did not have (or need) songs. But this new musical makes it hard to imagine a “Mean Girls” without such soon-to-be iconic songs like Karen’s “Sexy” or Janis and Damian’s “Revenge Party.”
Adding any content into the already-iconic script of the musical was a risk — as was cutting some of the famous lines and scenes. Thankfully, Tina Fey has given the film’s devotees not only the “Mean Girls” they remember, but the “Mean Girls” musical they want, and dare I say, the musical they deserve after 14 years of devoted fandom.
Of course, a good portion of the musical feels new. After all, the classic 2004 story has been updated to 2018, complete with memes, twitter fights, emojis, and even a Trump reference. This update becomes quite noticeable in Gregg Barnes’ costumes. Barnes managed to fuse the color palette, silhouettes, and iconic looks of the movie into more modern outfits. Don’t worry, there is still just as much pink. Probably more, actually.
The modernization is also deeply felt in the set, which is made entirely up of curved, movable screens (set design by Scott Pask; video design by Finn Ross and Adam Young). Pask, Ross, and Young prove a perfect collaboration and have managed to master ultra-modern digital set, which usually reads as flat and boring on the stage. Perhaps what makes the usage of the screens so masterful is the transitions, which include swipes sideways or upwards, invoking the way a physical set change would occur in a traditional set. Overall, these effects make you forget that these are screens, perfectly merging the digital with the traditional. Not only do they provide more flexibility, but add serious bonus points modernity and ingenuity.
Although the writing, direction, and design are certainly praise-worthy, the cast also had a lot of work to do in order to pull this “Mean Girls” musical off. The principle actors have managed to find the perfect blend of inspiration and innovation, giving audiences a strong sense of the legendary performances by Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams while still making it their own.
Even moreso than the film, the “Mean Girls” musical is really all about the Plastics. At the center is Regina George, the queen bee, here played by Taylor Louderman, who is a true devil in a pink high heel. Louderman perhaps sounds the most like her film counterpart, but gives a very different performance. From her very first entrance she was a star, but it took until her song near the end of Act I, “Someone Gets Hurts” for her to really show off her vocal abilities. But it was in her Act II song “Watch the World Burn” that she belted the house down, proving she is perhaps the most vocally talented member of the cast.
At her side are the gossip Gretchen Weiners, played by Ashley Park, and the ditsy Karen Smith, played by Kate Rockwell. Park is beautifully fragile, desperate to serve, yet ready to crack at any moment — she even compares herself to an iPhone without a case. Her song “What’s Wrong With Me” is perhaps the most emotionally raw moment in the musical. On the other side of the spectrum is Rockwell’s Karen, who is the perfect picture of a sexy Barbie doll; Rockwell is so hilarious that she manages to steal every scene she’s in.
Hiding behind this fierce trio are the rest of the cast. At the core of the show is Erika Henningson as Cady Heron. Compared to her female costars, Henningson does not manage to shine. Although she carries the show plot-wise, vocally she simply cannot compete. Performances by Cheech Manohar (Kevin) and Kyle Selig (Aaron) round out the cast, but thankfully in this feminist-infused musical, the straight male characters are mostly obsolete.
The same cannot be said for Damian and Janis, who are neither obsolete nor lack star presence. Perhaps the largest structural change to the musical involves Damian and Janis, who have become narrators, framing the musical as a “cautionary tale” and as a musical — although metatheater in musicals is overdone, here it is done sparingly and to great comedic effect.
Grey Hensen plays the gay icon Damian with such campy panache that it seems the character was always his. His Alyssa Edwards, Cher, and Boy George shirts feel perfectly in place, as does his amazing tap number. Barrett Wilbert Weed’s Janice, on the other hand, feels nothing like the movie; instead of a goth, she is now an alternative artsy hipster. Although her modernization feels somewhat laborious, what she lacks in attire she makes up for in vocals. Weed carries the show in between the major songs by Louderman, often making up for potential weakness of Henningson.
Other than the slight structural changes, what feels most different about the “Mean Girls” musical is its sense of morality; it has a much clearer message and makes some important educational points. The musical includes an effective critique of cyberbullying, bringing the movie into 2018 with our new ideas about what mean girls can do. The junior class girls are told that everyone says nasty things, which means everyone is not only a victim, but part of the problem. So in the words of Damian, think before you send that tweet or text or picture. In addition to mini-lecture on cyberbullying, the musical includes brief but appreciated references to racist beauty standards, school district elitism, child pornography, rape culture, and peer pressure about drinking.
On the surface, it is easy to compare the “Mean Girls” musical to the “Heathers” musical of a few years ago, not only because they are both movie-to-musical adaptations about a trio of ruthless, pretty, and popular girls, but because both include the memorable belting of Barrett Wilbert Weed. Although I was making comparisons throughout most of the “Mean Girls” musical, it was the final song that convinced me that (despite the many musical similarities) they are, in fact, quite different. “Mean Girls” famously ends (spoiler alert?) with the ostracized Cady winning prom queen, breaking up the plastic crown, and sharing it with all the girls in her class. In the musical, this becomes the finale, “I See Stars” which is, admittedly, the cheesiest part of the show, but brings a smile to your face and makes you realize that compared to “Heathers,” this musical has a better moral for us to get behind. “Mean Girls” is about bullying and acceptance, real issues that high school students face every day.
Yes, the “Mean Girls” musical has a very obvious lesson and is trying to be more educational, but we are better off for it. This musical will not only make diehard fans like me happy to relive an iconic film in a new, more fun genre, but will also teach audiences important lesson about how we should treat each other, especially in this digital, impersonal age.
“Mean Girls” opened on Sunday, April 8th at the August Wilson Theatre. Run Time: 2 Hours and 30 Minutes with one intermission.