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A CurtainUp Review
Clueless, the Musical

Oh, Hi! This song reminds me of a way old book we had to read in school that says, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." and except for the "worst of times" part, I totally get what the author was saying, like in olden days there were World Wars and Viet Nams...the Seventies brought a big recession and cheesy disco music... In the eighties, sex, drugs and rock and roll, turned into "crack, AIDS and Flock of Seagulls
— Cher establishing the aim of Clueless, the musical: to forget about the "worst of times" even high school kids in 2018 are living though and join her in singing "It's a Beautiful Life - Oh Oh."
Dove Cameron and Zurin Villanueva star in the New Group's world premiere of Clueless, the Musical (PhotoMonique Carboni)
Amy Heckerling's 1995 coming of age comedy with its clever link to Jane Austen's Emma arrived couldn't have been more aptly timed. New TV productions of Austen's novels were booming, the the high school genre was in decline. And so Heckerling piggy backed on the Austen boom and saved the high school movie genre from oblivion by turning Austen's Emma Woodhouse into a pretty high school princess named Cher Horowitz, with the same well-meaning bent for meddling in other people's romances.

With the musical theater world's current boom in musicalizing these teen driven movies, Clueless was bound to sing and dance. But, instead of aiming for a Broadway landing as Mean Girls did with great success last season, Clueless , has danced it's way to the venerable New Group's home at Off Broadway's Pershing Signature Center.

The New Group has built a reputation for presenting exciting updates or world premieres of dramatic works. During the last several years the company's artistic director Scott Elliott has expanded that mission to include musicals. Sweet Charity a well-known Broadway show was given a fine new and more intimate staging. It met with enough praise to generate talk of a Broadway transfer (so far unrealized). Last year, the New Group gave New York audiences a chance to see if they liked Jerry Springer, the Opera as much as Londoners did. They did, enough so for the show, like . . .Charity, to extend.

Going counter to the company's name, Clueless now having its world premiere at the Pershing Square Signature Center's smallest theater, has neither a new book or a newly minted score. Amy Heckerling, who created the original, has stuck with the story of the shopping obsessed but good-hearted Valley girl who really wants everyone's life be beautiful. Since that story's huge fan base has actually grown by virtue of reruns, as well as a TV and young adult book series that's probably not a bad thing— especially given the peppy staging and committed performances of a cast vivaciously led by Disney movie star Dove Cameron (Liv and Maddie).

To double down on the nostalgia appeal of revisiting a beloved story, Heckerling has also opted to use several of the movie's soundtrack songs and almost two dozen other pop hits from its 90s time frame instead of an original score. That means this Clueless is not just another high profile screen to stage teen musical but another addition to the endless parade of jukebox musicals. Since the songs are fun this too might be a good thing, especially for nostalgia enthusiasts. But while Heckerling has rejiggered some of the lyrics to make them fit in better with what's happening on stage, her add-ons are awkwardly rhymed and tend to be more witless than witty.

But enough complaining. The show does have enough assets to entertainingly distract us from these worst of times that nowadays affect teens everywhere. However, this Clueless remains firmly planted in the 1990's and thus aptly opens up with Cher singing "Beautiful Life." Amy Clark's costumes are delicious reminders of the movie, a head to toes 90's fashion show.

Beowulf Boritt's set too echoes the movie's signature plaid dominated styles, with even the ceiling in plaids. A rear wall accommodates doors, windows and projections that turn two driving scenes into show highlights (Bravo, Daryl Maloney). The top of that busy wall also features a balcony for the excellent six-piece band.

While Dove Cameron is very much the show's star, the other players in this updated comedy of manners are all good, in terms of putting their own stamp on the characters as well as singing and dancing. Zurin Villanueva is terrific as Dionne, Cher's best friend and fellow style obsessed school queen bee. Ephie Aardema is also excellent as Tai, the grungy new girl who Cher makes over with unanticipated results. Naturally, you can't have a show about pretty, boy crazy girls without boys to disappoint and please them, so that boy cast includes Cher's ex-stepbrother, Josh (Dave Thomas Brown nicely filling the shoes of the role that launched Paul Rudd's career).

Like most of these teen musicals, Clueless gives several adults a chance to shine, most notably Chris Hoch doing triple duty as Cher's father, a driving teacher, and the grumpy teacher who, thanks to Cher's maneuverings, ends up romantically involved with another lonely teacher, Miss Geist (Megan Sikora).

Choreographer. Kelly Devine who also collaborated with Director Hanggi on the '80s jukesical Rock of Ages keeps things moving along with hyper-kinetic dance numbers that fortunately become a little less frenetic in the somewhat more substantive and better second act.

Undoubtedly, Clueless would have a better chance for a tranfer to Broadway if Amy Heckerling had enlisted an experienced song writing team like Ben Pasek and Justin Paul of the powerful, truly contemporary musical Dear Evan Hansen That said, this is what it is— a fiuffy entertainment with a clever literary link.

Not having seen the movie, or the TV spinoffs I'm not this show's target audience. Fortunately my guest was LaGuardia High School senior Kalissa Persaud. She loved the way the show enhanced her memories of the movie Her enjoyment was contagious enough for me feel less clueless about this story's enduring appeal, whatever its format.

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Clueless, the Musical Book by Amy Heckerling, adapted from her film script, . loosely based on Jane Austen's Emma
Music: 90's pop hits, with lyrics reworked by Heckerling.
Director by Kristin Hanggi
Choreographer: Kelly Devine
Cast: Dove Cameron (Cher), Ephie Aardema (Tai), Sara Andreas (Heather), Gilbert L. Bailey II (Murray), Dave Thomas Brown (Josh), Will Connolly (Travis), Tiffany Engen , Danielle Marie Gonzalez (Lucy), Tessa Grady (Amber), Talya Groves (Summer), Chris Hoch (Mel, Mr. Hall, DMV Instructor), L'ogan J'ones (Max), Darius Jordan Lee (Sean), Justin Mortelliti (Christian), Megan Sikora (Miss Geist, Ms. Stoeger), Brett Thiele (Elton), Zurin Villanueva (Dionne), Katie Goffman, Tiffany Engen Jeff Kuhr (Female Swings),Jeff Kuhr(maleSwing).
Scenic design: Beowulf Boritt
Costume design: Amy Clark
Lighting design: Jason Lyons
Sound design:Gareth Owen
Projection design: Darrel Maloney
Musical supervision, arrangements, and orchestrations: Ethan Popp
Musical direction: Matthew Smedal
Stage Manager:
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, Including 1 intermission
The New Group at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre 480 West 42nd Street
From 11/20/18; opening 12/11/18;closing 1/12/19.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 12/09/18 press preview.

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