At the end of “Mean Girls,” Cady, the new girl in high school who tries so hard to fit in that she’s become phony and superficial, tells her classmates that she’s learned her lesson: “I wanted everyone to like me so bad, I kind of lost myself in the process.” Had Tina Fey and her collaborators learned the same lesson, they surely would not have turned her smart, funny 2004 movie into the overlong, ill-timed Broadway musical that is currently running at the August Wilson Theater.
The story, with a book by Fey, closely follows the plot of the movie (which was itself inspired by a non-fiction book by Rosalind Wiseman, “Queen Bees and Wannabees,” about teenage girl cliques in high school.) Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen), who has been homeschooled in Kenya by her biologist parents, becomes a student at a public high school in a Chicago suburb, and is so freaked out by this unfamiliar jungle that she eats her lunch hiding in a stall in the girl’s bathroom. Rescued by a group of outcasts, she soon joins up instead with the trio of “Plastics,” the clique that rules the school, led by Regina George (Taylor Louderman), whom Cady recognizes from her study of the Kenyan jungle as the “apex predator,” and featuring the insecure, gossipy Gretchen (Ashley Park) and the stupendously stupid Karen (Kate Rockwell.) In her quest for popularity, Cady winds up dumbing down, turning shallow and unkind, and betraying her original friends – until she wises up at the end and joins the math team.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with some stand-outs who feel like discoveries (even though I’ve seen some of them perform before.) Particularly impressive are the duo portraying the school’s amiable outcasts — Grey Henson as Damian and Barrett Wilbert Weed as Janis Sarkisian. Both of these “art freaks,” as they’re identified in the bestiary of high school cliques, function as the narrators and social commentators for the audience, and the initial guides for Cady.
Henson gets some of Fey’s best lines — “I once read on a tote bag that “everything fits somewhere,’” Damian tells Cady when they first meet. “So keep an open mind and a closed mouth…” — and two of the best numbers, “Where Do You Belong?” and “Stop”
Tina Fey’s self-aware wit is still evident, with some of the now iconic lines/catchphrases transposed from the movie intact, updated with topical jokes and extensive references to social media.
But the musical, an hour longer than the movie, adds some 18 largely unmemorable songs composed by Jeff Richmond (a former musical director for Saturday Night Live, and Fey’s husband), few of which advance the story. They are accompanied by often clunky forced-rhyme lyrics by Nell Benjamin, which even at their best are no match for Fey’s wit. (Sample lyric, sung by Regina: “I’ve got money and looks/I am, like, drunk with powah/This whole school humps my leg/Like a Chihuahua.”) Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who has helmed some dozen Broadway musicals, most notably “The Book of Mormon,” apparently decided that the best way to sell these songs was to choreograph them as if they are all show stoppers; this synthetic razzmatazz well illustrates the concept of diminishing returns. Ironically, the most enjoyable scene is the most deliberately amateur, the high school talent show, with a couple of extremely brief and silly acts – e.g. two drama club kids “acting out a scene from Transformer.”
The designers are all pros, and there are some vivid moments. At one point Regina, bent on revenge, seems to have descended into Hell, lit from below. It turns out she is using the photocopying machine as part of her campaign to wreak havoc. One can even credit Finn Ross and Adam Young with a kind of next-generation video projection design, replacing traditional sets, although theirs is more often a model of efficiency than artistry, bringing us swiftly and effortlessly to one familiar-looking high school locale after another.
“Mean Girls,” though reveling in the cattiness of its characters for most of its two and a half hours, ultimately wants you to know that it doesn’t endorse that cattiness. At the end, it reveals a positive side to even its most seemingly irredeemable personalities, and explicitly offers a feminist message and a humanist moral.
If it’s difficult to find fault with these messages, which are as straightforward as any public service announcement, there’s an unexpected edge to a monologue near the end addressed to the school’s female students by the math teacher Ms. Norbury (Kerry Butler, performing the role that Tina Fey did in the movie):
“…one thing I know for sure, guys, is that calling someone ugly doesn’t make you better looking. Calling someone stupid won’t make you any smarter. And we have to stop beating each other up over every little thing, ‘cause meanwhile, men are running around grabbing butts and shooting everybody….”
I was taken aback. Did they really throw in a glib reference to the grave issues of sexual harassment and mass shootings as part of a pep talk on female adolescent empowerment? This drove home a problem with “Mean Girls” that transcends its specific pluses or minuses as a work of musical theater. At a time when high school students are in the news as survivors of gun violence, and as the leaders (heroes!) of a renewed nationwide protest movement for gun control, do we really need a trivial musical that, for all the facile moral lessons tacked on at the end, reduces teenagers to stereotypes for our amusement?
August Wilson Theater
Book by Tina Fey; Music by Jeff Richmond; Lyrics by Nell Benjamin; Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
Cast Erika Henningsen, Taylor Louderman, Barrett Wilbert Weed, Ashley Park, Kerry Butler, Kate Rockwell, Grey Henson, Rick Younger, Kyle Selig, Cheech Manohar, Rick Younger, Stephanie Lynn Bissonnette, Tee Boyich, Collins Conley, Ben Cook, Demarius R. Copes, Kevin Csolak, Devon Hadsell, Curtis Holland, Myles McHale, Chris Medlin, Brittany Nicholas, Becca Petersen, Nikhil Saboo, Jonalyn Saxer, Brendon Stimson, Riza Takahashi, Kamille Upshaw, Zurin Villanueva, Gianna Yanelli and Iain Young
Running time: 2 and a half hours including an intermission
Tickets: $100 – $190. Premium: Up to $343. Lottery and rush: $42.50