If you’re someone who says “I would never want to go back to high school,” you won’t want to go to MEAN GIRLS, either.
Those with fonder memories of ninth (or tenth) to 12th grade will find some truthful nostalgia in revisiting the years of cliques, bullies, fashionistas, and the come-back-go-away-I-love-you nature of friendships and puppy love.
Tina Fey covered it all in her 2004 film MEAN GIRLS. Now she’s turned it into a bright and sassy musical that will be Very Big with teenage theatergoers – especially girls.
Damian, the pudgy and uncloseted gay as well as girl friend (two words) Janis Sarkisian disclose at the very top of the show a secret that the film kept until the final reel. Those who don’t know the movie won’t find that this spilling of the beans spoils anything; by the time the plot gets to it, most theatergoers will have forgot that they’d already been told.
There are “consequences in this cautionary tale,” as Damian and Janis warn us. Teen Cady Heron, homeschooled in Africa where her parents have been working, finds that she’ll be uprooted to America. Cady is the character we’re meant to most like, one to whom we’re supposed to give our sympathy. Too bad, then, that Fey gave her the show’s most tasteless line. When Cady’s parents tell her that they’re leaving Kenya for Illinois, she says “Maybe I can meet an obese person.” No, hunger in Africa should not be a subject for comedy.
Once Cady reaches North Shore High School, she’s befriended by Damian and Janis who warn her about the school’s triumphant female triumvirate: Regina George, Karen Smith and Gretchen Wieners. Damian has dubbed them “The Plastics” — not inaccurately, for they do have that substance’s hard and artificial qualities.
After Cady has bonded with Damian and Janis, Regina decides that the newcomer is worthy to be admitted into the in-crowd. It’s a rare high-school graduate who won’t remember this dilemma. What do you do when you’re friends with the uncool but the cool kids are willing to take you in?
So in order to please Damian and Janis, Cady becomes a double-agent. She gives Regina the protein bars she brought from Kenya, claiming that they’ll help her lose weight; in fact, they’ll do just the opposite and put on the pounds. Regina is, needless to say, illiterate in Swahili, so she can’t read the ingredients on the label and must take Cady’s word that this foodstuff will melt away the three pounds she’s so desperate to lose (and, of course, doesn’t really need to).
This situation is spelled out much more clearly in the film. Worse, Fey hasn’t solved the bigger problem that plagued the movie. We can’t believe that as Regina suddenly but steadily gains weight that she doesn’t put two and two together why she’s up by two dress sizes. Regina’s not stupid but she is natively suspicious and, more to the point, she’s been around the corridors enough times to know that she can’t be the only one at North Shore with a diabolical mind.
In the film, Fey better resolved the situation. There Regina finally learns what’s what when a jock tells her his coach has his team eat these bars in order to gain weight. Here the way Regina is told is far more matter-of-fact and obvious. Nevertheless, Regina should have gleaned the reality on her own (which would have led to her funny, ear-piercing scream).
Fey has substantial messages to deliver. Cady has a love-at-first-sight moment once she reaches math class and spies Aaron Stephens. He’s good in the subject, yes, but she’s better. Cady won’t let him know that, however, lest he feel inferior. And so she purposely dumbs herself down in order to get her man. No wonder that lyricist Nell Benjamin gave Cady a song called “Stupid with Love.”
At the performance I attended, the lasses in the audience moaned when they saw what Cady was doing. They were to moan even louder when Karen came out with opinions that clearly objectified women.
Now there would have been a time when these skewered values would have received hearty laughs of recognition from everyone; now they barely got nervous ones. When Karen then thought twice and corrected herself, the torrent of applause and whoops of approval kicked in. MEAN GIRLS ultimately shows that it has its head in the right place, so its target audience can profit from seeing it.
Fey hasn’t stood pat with her screenplay. Because so much has happened with technology in the last 14 years, she now can get a good laugh out of a scene with selfies. She’s thought of a far more clever plot twist on how to stop the talent show in which The Plastics perform. That talent show also shows that Fey knows the realities of every high school’s obsession with sports. Hence the subtle dig when she has the school’s principal announce the upcoming show over the loudspeaker: “Go North Shore — even for art!”
Playing Karen Smith, the dumb squirrel – “dumb bunny” would be too great a euphemism and compliment – Kate Rockwell has that dazed look on her face that suggests her forehead has just been hit by a two-by-four. Rockwell does a good job of seesawing back and forth between worrying that she’s stupid to remembering that beautiful well-built girls don’t have many problems even if the number of their brain cells is identical to their dress sizes.
As Gretchen, Ashley Park has much nervous energy. At the end of her song “What’s Wrong with Me?” she gives out with a brave smile that disintegrates. She tries to get it back again and does — only it’s not nearly as strong and secure this time.
Kerry Butler doesn’t merely double but triples. Five’ll get you ten that some audience members will notice that she segues from Cady’s mother to Regina’s while not catching that she’s math teacher Ms. Norbury, too.
Regina’s mother is one of those Dammit-I’m-still-young-and-hip-dammit types. Here Fey gave Butler a series of funny lines in a mini-speech; if she’d awarded her just a few more, Butler would have received applause upon her exit. (At the performance I attended, a few people tried to give it to her anyway.)
Taylor Louderman knows that Regina means “queen.” She’s imperious enough, but of all the principals, she gets the least to sing, and that keeps her from making a more vivid impression. Grey Henson and Barrett Wilbert Weed respectively play Damian and Janis in competent if unremarkable fashion.
Sad to say, that’s also true of Erika Henningsen’s Cady. She’d actually fit in very well with The Plastics for she flashes a plastic smile most of the night. We need more from this character, and although Henningsen works very hard, she doesn’t express the emotion that would make us truly care for her.
Some weeks back, I groused that Patti Murin in FROZEN set the all-time record for on-stage over-smiling. She hasn’t been dethroned, but Henningsen gets the silver medal. We’re almost relieved when she shows up at a costume party as a zombie, because her false teeth, although hideous, at least give us a break from her otherwise incessant smiling.
In a mere 13 years, Casey Nicholaw has gone from a rookie choreographer to an eight-time Tony nominee in musical categories – five times for choreography, three for direction and one win for THE BOOK OF MORMON. Nicholaw contributes the shrewd eye that is the hallmark of great directors. He has a clever way of showing that the kids have changed classrooms and has engineered a smart costume change from one character to another. Nicholaw’s choreography is on-the-money, too, for it takes as its inspiration teens’ raging hormones.
Composer Jeff Richmond is Fey’s husband, but he didn’t get the job from sheer nepotism. Many composers who come to Broadway from the rock world simply create melodies that appeal to them without thinking of what the character would actually sound like. Richmond wisely knows that musically speaking one size doesn’t fit all and offers many different styles down to some pseudo-be-bop. Orchestrator John Clancy has underlined much of the music with ominous rumblings that suggest trouble is on the horizon.
Benjamin’s lyrics prove that she’s one of our current best. The film has a tiny flashback to Kenya which Benjamin could have taken chapter-and-verse and put into lyrics. Instead, she uses it as a springboard for her own clever perception.
When Aaron starts his lyric “I end up acting like a” we nod knowingly because he’s obviously going to finish the line with “fool.” No: Benjamin chooses “school” as her capper, giving us a delicious food-for-thought lyrical snack. For who’d want to act like THIS school?
Later Butler sings a brass-tacks opinion on a child’s love for a mother: “You’ll be worshipped for years,” she sings, seemingly en route to a sentimental moment – before coming back to reality by adding “and then she’ll turn three.” (I tell you, this lyricist is GOOD.)
Benjamin co-wrote the LEGALLY BLONDE score with her husband Laurence O’Keefe, so this is her second Broadway musical to involve a costume party. This one has a contemporary teen in an Abe Lincoln beard and stovepipe hat. Would anyone in this trend-conscious crowd choose this retro character?
It’s costume designer Gregg Barnes’ only mistake – and one Nicholaw should have caught, too. Yet Barnes would sweep all the prizes this season if there were a Most Apt Footwear category, for pair after pair of shoes is eye-catching. Butler also deserves some sort of prize for walking securely on the highest of heels.
Scott Pask has delivered a unit set that’s simply a half-circle that’s standard-issue cinder-block inelegant. That’s all that’s really needed, however, because in this age of sparkling projections, Finn Ross and Adam Young do the main share of decorating the set – beautifully, in fact, from the opening scenes in Kenya (which have a LION KING feel) to
the local mall with all its schlocky establishments. (Would you want to dine at an eatery called Borderline Seafood?)
Near show’s end, we do worry when Cady seems to excuse herself by singing “I was offered bad choices.” How relieved we are when she redeems herself by owning up to the truth: “But I could have said no.” Both the male and female teens in the audience need to hear that.
As for adult theatergoers? MEAN GIRLS may not only unnerve those who wouldn’t want to return to high school; it could ultimately discourage couples from conceiving. Why have children when you know that in 14 years or so they’ll be forced to endure pain, torture, humiliation and cruelty dispensed daily in our centers of not-so-higher learning?