Thursday, April 12, 2018

201 (2017-2018): Review: MEAN GIRLS (seen April 11, 2018)

“The Plastic Jungle”

There’s a moment in Mean Girls when the heroine, Cady Heron, shows up at a Halloween party in a scary costume only to find herself uncomfortably out of place among all the girls dressed like sluts. Although it had nothing to do with what I was wearing, I felt a bit like Cady through much of this exuberant, creatively designed, but somehow hollow Broadway musical based on the popular 2004 movie of the same name. On one level, I was enjoying myself moderately, on another wondering why everyone in the August Wilson Theatre was having the time of their life.
Erika Henningsen and company. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Tina Fey, who wrote (and acted in) the movie, is responsible for the book, so you can expect a lot of funny zingers; you may also find, as I did, that guffaws erupt at lines as laughable as any random page in the phone book. Like when the teenage heroine’s mom tells her they’re moving back to America from Kenya and she responds: “America? Maybe I can meet an obese person.” Da-da-boom. 

Fey’s plot remains much the same as the film: pretty, super-bright, mathematically gifted, 16-year-old Cady (Erika Henningsen, terrific on many fronts, in the Lindsay Lohan role), home-schooled in Kenya, where her parents are biologists, moves to a Chicago suburb to attend North Shore High School and runs headlong into adolescent culture shock.
Erika Henningsen. Photo: Joan Marcus.
She quickly becomes the target and tool of the school’s “mean girls” clique, the buff, expensively coiffed and dressed Plastics, led by the ultra-bitchy, blonde beauty of a queen bee, Regina George (Taylor Louderman, rocking the hot look, the big voice, the dismissive, sky-high attitude).
Erika Henningsen, Ashley  Park, Taylor Louderman, Kate Rockwell. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Regina and her minions, the dumb blonde Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell, amusingly vacant) and the insecure Gretchen Wieners (Ashley Park, a multiple-threat fireball), take advantage of the innocent newcomer. At first, Cady joins the Plastics so she can spy on them for her cynical friends, the angry Janis Sarkisian (Barrett Wilbert Weed, drily sassy) and the campily gay Damian (Grey Henson, loving his every moment). Cady shares one of the best numbers, “Apex Predator,” with Janis, while Damian’s show-stoppers include the company tap routine, “Stop.” Ultimately, before she learns her lesson, Cady begins morphing into a Regina-like queen bee herself.
Erika Henningsen, Ashley Park, Taylor Louderman, Kate Rockwell, Barret Wilbert Weed. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Meanwhile, Cady becomes involved in a girl- meets-boy, girl-loses-boy, girl-gets-boy subplot with handsome classmate Aaron Samuels (Kyle Seleg, everybody’s boy-next-door), ex-boyfriend of Regina. Naturally, Regina isn’t disposed to see the newbie staking a claim on her own discard. 

Numerous other plot threads (such as a math competition) and characters pull their way through the action; one concerns a Burn Book comment about drug dealing involving math teacher Mrs. Norbury, a role that allows the versatile Kerry Butler to practically incarnate Tina Fey, who played the part in the movie. (Butler is deliciously unrecognizable in her two other roles, Cady’s mom and, especially, Regina’s cluelessly cool mother, carrying a tiny dog with a lascivious licking habit.)
Kerry Butler, Erika Hennigsen. Photo: Joan Marcus. 
The material, inspired by Rosalind Wiseman’s book, Queen Bees and Wannabes, about the behavior of girls like those in the show, has lost whatever comic realism it had in the movie in favor of broad, caricaturish, musical comedy strokes. Swallowing all the contrivances thus becomes increasingly difficult, as it makes Cady’s naïve choices, like dumbing herself down so she’ll be more appealing to Aaron, so strained, but that’s the story so love it or leave it.
Aaron Selig, Erika Hennigsen. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Social media gets thoroughly skewered, but while Instagram and Twitter are mentioned, Facebook somehow gets a pass. Serious issues like guns, opioids, and the like provide throwaway lines that aim mainly for laughs, and nary is a word said about the current epidemic of vaping among high school students. 

There’s a thematic emphasis on not striving so hard to fit in but instead to be yourself, as in Janis’s song, “I’d Rather Be Me”; for the most part, though, the fun’s focus on frivolities fizzles long before the production’s two and a half hours—a full hour longer than the movie!—have run their overstuffed course. 
Grey Henson, Barrett Wilbert Weed, Erika Henningsen. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The music, by Fey’s husband, Jeff Richmond, is mostly in Broadway’s familiar loud and peppy pop style favoring powerful huge vocal chops (which are provided in abundance), with a dose of rock here, a bit of hip-hop there, but not too heavy on the ballads. It isn’t especially thrilling but Nell Benjamin’s often shrewd lyrics make the songs bounce. 

One that caught my ear comes when Cady expresses her attraction to Aaron during her calculus class: “I’m astounded and nonplussed/I am filled with calculust.” The score offers a stream of rhythmic, sufficiently melodic tunes for director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon) to turn into flashy production numbers.
Taylor Louderman. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Mean Girls is a dance-heavy show allowing the students (successfully embodied by performers in their 20s and 30s) to do things like whirl around in desk-chairs on wheels in perfectly synchronized fashion, leap about holding red cafeteria trays like semaphores, or tap their hearts out with impressive energy, limberness, and pizazz.
Company of Mean Girls. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The show’s most awesome contribution is its combination of Scott Pask’s set of a curved upstage wall, with multiple openings through which numerous scenic units can roll on and off, and its function as a screen for a stunning visual feast of imaginative video projections designed by Finn Ross and Adam Young.
Barrett Wilbert Weed, Grey Henson. Photo: Joan Marcus.
These images, which allow for instantaneous scene changes, range from realistic pictures of the African savannah, North Shore’s brick exterior, or various interiors to more abstract images expressing emotional effects. They even show, with comical gusto, what happens during Regina’s fateful encounter with a school bus. In Mean Girls, Ross and Young illustrate how radically technology is altering traditional stage design.
Ashley Park, Taylor Louderman, Kate Rockwell, Erika Henningsen. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Gregg Barnes’s costumes follow the movie’s approach of dressing the kids in every variety of teen geekiness, rebelliousness, and fashionista fabulousness; he probably goes a bit far in his creation of the Plastics’ body-hugging tops and jeans, miniskirts, and stiletto heels, but it’s all of a piece with the show’s comic book picture of American high school tribalism, rampant adolescent sexuality, and focus on female body image. One of Mean Girl’s most provocative moments, in fact, arrives in a social media montage showing close-ups of Regina’s overgrown, lace thong-adorned butt. 
Ben Cook, Nikhul Saboo, Cheech Manohar, Erika Henningsen, Kerry Butler. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Mean Girls will undoubtedly please many crowds. Much as I found the show lacking—especially with this season’s revivals of My Fair Lady and Carousel around to remind us of what the books and scores of great musical theatre can be—I’m sorry I wasn’t able to bring either of my adult granddaughters to see it. I think they would have wondered why this old kvetch didn’t think it quite as fetch as so many others do.


August Wilson Theatre
245 W. 52nd St., NYC
Open run