It’s Fetch. But It Could Be Fetcher: Review of Tina Fey’s ‘Mean Girls’ on Broadway

April 8, 2018

Just wait for the bus.

There is, to date at least, no better-looking production on Broadway today. Mean Girls, the theatrical adaptation of the 2004 movie starring Lindsay Lohan, has swiped Spongebob Squarepants‘ brilliantly colored crown.

The visual centerpiece of the production is a panoply of projection screens—the brainchild of Finn Ross and Adam Young, and intrinsic to Scott Pask’s slick design—that take us from the African savannah to the hormone- and bitchiness-stained hallways of North Shore High School in Illinois, as Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen) returns from one kind of wild to find a place in another.

And near the end, villain Regina George’s (Taylor Louderman) encounter with that merciless bus.

The projection screens begin and end the show with falling pages from the insult-laden ‘burn book’ that end up bringing such apocalyptic chaos to North Shore, but conjure up every Mean Girls mini-world in between. They don’t neuter Pask’s design either; every sighting of Regina and her gang of Plastics is bathed in queasy hot pink, including her plush prison of a bedroom, the high-strung nerve center of the Plastics.

If you loved the movie, if you found it as ‘fetch’ as Plastics sub-lieutenant Gretchen Wieners (here played by Ashley Park) would wish, then you will also love this musical, directed and choreographed with characteristic verve and juiced-up passion by Casey Nicholaw.

The book by Tina Fey still has all the sly, biting brilliance and precise observational humor of the original movie, which she also wrote. (It is not the first production directly inspired by Mean Girls to make it to the New York stage; the excellent School Girls; Or The African Mean Girls Play premiered off-Broadway last year.)

The secondary characters in the film don’t feel that secondary on stage. Sit back and delight in every second Kate Rockwell’s Karen Smith is on stage. Rockwell’s playing dumb, her comic timing (she holds up the action just enough by looking vacantly out at us, or tap-dancing out of a scene), and her ability to as gracefully as possible steal every scene she is in is pure hilarious joy. (Truly, you could buy a ticket just to enjoy her performance.)

The same goes for Damian (Grey Henson) and Janis (Barrett Wilbert Weed)—he, gay, musicals-loving, camp and beyond-wise, and she, wry and wounded onlooker to the Plastics’ hegemony—whose song ‘I’d Rather Be Me’ provides the show’s central, powerful advocation of difference.

Henson is a commanding one-man power supply to the whole show, leading numbers like ‘Where Do You Belong?,’ ‘Revenge Party,’ and best of all ‘Stop’—which is a kind of plea to Cady, and all of us, to stop pretending to be something we are not—with brio and charisma. Damian is very aware that every number he is involved in should be a Broadway show-stopper—he issues instructions as he sings—and so it’s a neat built-in joke that the character provides exactly that to a Broadway audience.

Louderman’s Regina is a blonde, tousle-haired monster, who at the beginning motorizes towards us on a lectern, the feared dictator lit pink, informing us, she is a “massive deal. Fear me. Love me. Stand and stare at me… I am the prettiest poison you’ve ever seen. I never weigh more than one-fifteen.” She means manipulative business; a master gas-lighter and insinuator, Regina is a Bond villain clad in Forever 21, particularly for her big, flame-swirling number, ‘Watch The World Burn.’

The songs—music by Fey’s husband Jeff Richmond, lyrics by Nell Benjamin—are a well-judged mix of rock, pop and the occasional ballad, but many do not advance the story; occasionally they delay the progress of the plot and in a few instances blunt the satire.

The mirroring metaphor of African wilderness and high school remain: ‘It Roars,’ the first number for Cady and the ensemble contrasts, as the movie did, the tribes of high school, including the geeky ‘mathletes,’ led by Kevin Gnapoor (Cheech Manohar) where Cady will eventually, very eventually, accept part of her identity lies, even if Damian has warned her proximity to them is “social suicide.”

Where the movie’s Lindsay Lohan made Cady’s descent into ‘bad’ a nervy and genuinely conflict-strewn inner nightmare, here the musical makes the character’s pull of light and dark feel more basically procedural. Henningsen is a beautiful singer; she would be better served by songs that did more than make Cady—or ‘Caddy’ as many seem to call her—seem non-taxingly conflicted and simply plucky.

Whether it’s faking a friendship with the Plastics to get revenge, then becoming like them, or making herself look more stupid than she is under the misguided impression this is the right way to attract dreamboat Aaron Samuels (Kyle Selig), Cady feels almost too sensible and stout in her intentions, and the static pacing of the songs means that her doing the right thing feels more deferred than a testing inner moral minefield to negotiate.

Park’s Gretchen makes her wonderful song, ‘What’s Wrong With Me?,’ a genuinely pained interrogation of the show’s most haunting and its serious question, about wanting to fit in and not feel left out, about the cost of that, and the exhaustion and pain it engenders: “What’s wrong with me?/Where is my mind?/Where does it end?/Maybe I need to find/A better friend?”

Park, who plays Gretchen with a delirious intensity, not only nails the song, but also her character’s fundamental isolation and the more broad comedy of her crazy loyalty to, and staccato acts of defiance against, Regina. The musical gives her so much, and then slightly leaves her hanging. This critic wanted something more for her.

Her song is eventually shared with Mrs. George (Kerry Butler), because for Fey and Richmond the sins of the parents and all that. A damaged mom, who was damaged early herself, she is both hilariously trying to get down with the kids, while holding a dog with a very free tongue.

As with Gretchen, the musical sets up something deep and interesting about Mrs. George’s psychology and her twisted relationship with Regina that it chooses to leave unfinished.

Butler is the show’s unsung master of camouflage, also playing Cady’s hippy mom, and dear Ms. Norbury, who Fey played in the movie, the careworn math teacher whose dry wisdom eventually brings order after Regina’s ‘burn’ book scheming leads to North Shore’s implosion.

Rick Younger’s Mr. Duvall is the principal all at sea as chaos engulfs him, puzzling not just that one girl fills with her inhaler with vodka but also does that work?; while all the fighting and all the show’s dancing is down to an excellent ensemble who—whether wheeling on and and off the stage with desks, or being the Greek chorus to powerful songs like ‘Fearless,’ ‘Someone Gets Hurt,’ and ‘Revenge Party’—are giving considerably more than 100 per cent.

Mean Girls fans will have a ‘fetch’ night out at the Broadway musical (see Gretchen, you totally made it happen); they also may wish it was a tad shorter and sharper.