CLUELESS: Not Quite, Not Quite …


If you were currently writing a musical about teens in high school, would you mention the words “mean girls” in one of your lyrics?

Wouldn’t you go out of your way NOT to mention “mean girls”? Anyone interested in writing for Broadway would be fully aware that the phrase would immediately bring to mind an already established hit. Why invite the comparison?

Nevertheless, Amy Heckerling has “mean girls” in one of her songs in CLUELESS.

Whoops! Saying that the songs are hers is actually aggrandizing. Heckerling, in adapting her 1995 film into a stage musical, has appropriated the melodies of many pop hits of that era and then put new lyrics to them – including “mean girls.”

So what we have here is HALF a jukebox musical. Still, that’s better than the usual jukeboxer where so many of the existing lyrics aren’t changed a whit to fit the plot or the characters. The librettist is okay with the situation if the audience likes being reminded of the songs and enjoys the performers who sing and dance to them.

So give Heckerling SOME credit for spending the time to write words that specifically reflect the lives and adventures of her heroine, friends, enemies and adults.

Because CLUELESS’ central character is named Cher, we have another Cher Show in town. This one, though, is off-Broadway, 10 blocks downtown and two avenues west. That’s where The New Group plays at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

Cher is the daughter of a one-percenter. So are her best friend Dionne and all of their classmates. They’ve been brought up in Beverly Hills where a house with a pool is as routine as plastic surgery during sophomore year. If what the kids wear seems at odds with their wealth, they’re nevertheless, as we’re told, “designer grunge clothes.”

So money is no object here. “Give me five dollars,” says Dionne’s boyfriend Murray; she hands it over without a word or a pause, as if he’d asked her for a nickel.

Cher and Dionne have enough money, too, to buy expensive concert tickets. They don’t want them for themselves, but for their teacher Mr. Hall so that he can take out Miss Geist.

Is this done out of the goodness of their hearts or the machinations of their brains? Why, the latter, of course. The girls are intent on bribing Mr. Hall so that he’ll give each of them a better grade.

There’s that famous expression “Don’t blame the children – blame the parents.” It’s certainly true here. Cher’s father Mel wants his daughter to get a good education – but, lawyer that he is, he doesn’t believe what’s required in life is remotely taught in high schools. Mel wants his daughter to learn how to negotiate, barter, wheedle, inveigle and – probably – cheat to get what she wants. When Cher tells him of her presumed victory over Mr. Hall, he proud-as-punchly says “I couldn’t be happier if it was based on real grades!”

“Thank you, Daddy,” she replies. Now “Daddy” is the term for “father” that little kids use until they feel it’s too infantile-sounding and when they switch to “Dad” or “Pop.” Cher’s smart in continuing to use “Daddy” for it keeps Mel thinking that she’s still a little girl; that makes him more inclined to give her what she wants.

But through both Dove Cameron’s performance as Cher and the dialogue we see that the girl genuinely loves her father. She tells the maid (you knew there’d be a maid) to be careful what she makes for dinner because she’s “not happy with Daddy’s cholesterol numbers.” And it’s not as if he’s anywhere around when she says it.

That alone distances CLUELESS from MEAN GIRLS. Better still, courtesy of Jane Austen’s EMMA, which Heckerling has used as her guide, matters become even more warmhearted. Cher admits that her bribe was initially “only for our grades, but now I see it’s what I love to do” – meaning matchmaking. And thanks to this “benevolent buzz” she’s getting from linking couples, she’ll spend more time doing it, as Emma once did.

Unlike Austen’s heroine, though, Cher isn’t above keeping out an eye for her Mr. Right, too. But her bottom-line feeling is that “It’s so much better when you do something for someone else” which is why we ultimately like her.

What’s also refreshing is that Cher and her cohorts have values that haven’t been in vogue with teens since the first Eisenhower administration. Doing drugs, Cher says with a judgmental sneer, is “a sure path to mall security” as a career. So she frowns upon new friend Tai’s intense interest in marijuana and her propensity to guzzle liquor. “I think you’ve had quite enough” Cher tells Tai with judgement befitting an old-world schoolmarm.

The most surprising revelation is that Cher and Dionne are virgins and are in no hurry to abandon the status. No succumbing to peer pressure for them. As Cher moans while scanning her classmates (who prove that girls mature faster than boys), “Look what we have to choose from!”

These are teens who read, too. The book of choice may be MEN ARE FROM MARS, WOMEN ARE FROM VENUS, but still, their eyes are glued to printed pages.

However, if you’re surprised when Cher identifies Polonius as the character in HAMLET who says a certain line, you’ll understand how she knows this when she says she learned it from seeing the Mel Gibson film.

Nevertheless, her being able to cite it does let us see she pays attention, doesn’t it? Heckerling burst onto the scene 36 years ago with the excellent FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, but both in her film of CLUELESS and in this musical she has had no interest in centering on a female Jeff Spicoli.

And yet, no sooner does Cher impress us with HAMLET than she comes out with “she don’t” in a lyric. Undoubtedly Heckerling had only had one syllable available on that note where she needed two, so she settled for the grammatical error. But we all know that Cher knows better.

Heckerling’s lyrics also include some cringers (“snobby” doesn’t rhyme with “party”). “If Cher didn’t have a trust” is paired with “she’d be just like one of us.” Our ear makes us think that maybe that first end-word, meant to rhyme with “us,” was “truss.” See how false rhymes take us out of the moment? Another Heckerling lyric establishes that Cher’s teacher is a Ph.D. So why is he Mr. Hall and not Dr. Hall?

Intense fans of the screenplay will note that Heckerling has added some terrific lines and quips. The school has a “Mercedes Appreciation Group.” Blackboards convey such messages as “The Academy Awards are NOT a school holiday” and “Do not mention Amber’s father’s film’s box office.”

There is one lame meta joke. In the middle of a student’s oral report, “America the Beautiful” suddenly starts playing as background music — which spurs Mr. Hall to start looking around with a “Where is that music coming from?” look on his face.

This is the type of thing that people who hate musicals absolutely adore, for it reinforces their opinion that the genre is inherently stupid and not worthy of serious consideration. Having Mr. Hall look foolish while dancing to a song – all in order to show he’s not old – is another woebegone joke that should have been cut before the first table-read.

After one lad gets up in front of the class and gives his report, Mr. Hall asks the kids “What you think of Elton’s oral?” No, Mr. Hall has been in classrooms long enough to avoid a double-entendre-laced set-up line. Using such a line suggests Heckerling was in a panic that she hadn’t had a joke for a few long minutes and that she needed one now at all costs.

Who’s responsible for these unfortunate gags? If it wasn’t director Kristin Hanggi, she should have stopped them. That said, Hanggi did a rock-solid job of staging the show; choreographer Kelly Devine’s dances are great fun, too. But someone should have spoken up about the left-over problem from the screenplay. After Cher unmistakably hits a parked car while enduring her driving test, there’s still not a single ramification.

As is almost always the case with professional productions with teen characters, the performers playing them are already too old. High school productions — definitely in this musical’s future — will be able to cast more realistically.

Because we’re in a world where adults finish a distant second to their children, every performer who plays a teen has one role while Megan Sikora plays two teachers and Chris Hoch portrays Dad, Mr. Hall and the nearly-frightened-to-death DMV Instructor. Hoch’s triple duty does wind up being confusing in one of the final stage pictures, for we see Hoch far upstage in silhouette in a tux getting married. But is the groom Mr. Hall or Daddy?

Little expense has been spared in giving CLUELESS a first-class look. (Well, what else would you expect with sets by Beowulf Boritt and costumes by Amy Clark?) At the end when the cast sings “We’re the kids in America,” we’re glad they are, because they’re as inherently nice as HAIRSPRAY’S nicest kids in town.

Hmmm, HAIRSPRAY … MEAN GIRLS … DEAR EVAN HANSEN … THE PROM … WICKED … even FROZEN and ALADDIN … all musicals about teens. In the end, whether CLUELESS is a masterpiece or a misfire may be beside the point. There just may be too many of these teen-centric musicals for another to survive. The show that really IS about mean girls may be responsible for these nice girls finishing last.