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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Besides the peppy triple-threat cast, Nicholaw has an outstanding team of backstage wizards to help him turn Fey's pre-internet dominated high school movie into an eye-popping, constantly shifting visual spectacle: Scott Pask's many colorful, plot and choreography supporting sets are on wheels so that the actors can move on and off stage with them . . . the closets full of witty costumes by Greg Barnes aren't limited to the the bubble gum pink sported by the cliqueish title trio . . . the video graphed backdrops by Finn Ross and Adam Young manage to take the students and teacher of North Shore High School in Illinois to as many places as any movie.
Most of kids at the matinee I attended were either toddlers or not even born when the 2004 movie was scripted by and co-starred Tina Fey. The movie was actually based on a self-help book for parents (Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman) which, like the musical's opening song, was a cautionary tale in the form of a how-to aimed at raising parents' awareness about how to help their daughters deal with high school cliques and bullying. However, thanks to the movie's extensive small screen after life, today's teens have come to know and love the characters, the story, and the lingo.
Fey has smartly enabled her target audience to see the characters and story that they've come to love courtesy of reruns reinvented, but not basically different, as a musical. But she's also imbued the musical's book with enough new jokes and changes to bring it into the internet world they live in. So what the kids and the ticket-buying moms with them get is a comfortingly familiar story that also fits their solemnly staring-into-a-screen style of watching.
In case you come to the show as a complete newbie, here's the setup: As in the movie, Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen) transfers to North Shore High School after years of being home schooled in Kenya. First to befriend her are Janis (Barrett Wilbert Weed) and Damian (Grey Henson), two outliers who want her to watch but stay clear the school's most elite clique, The Plastics — Queen of Mean Regina (Taylor Louderman).
Unsurprisingly, the naive Cady finds the Plastics quite "fetch" and not only allows herself be taken under the bullying Regina's wing, but becomes enough like her for her to dethrone Regina and ends up literally throwing her under a bus. Of course, this being a feel-good comedy, lessons are learned: Cady joins a more brainy group, Janis and Damien are no longer on the outside looking in, and even Regina makes nice. And naturally, Cady's crush on Aaron Samuels (Kyle Selig) ends happily.
Given that Janis and Damien are now the show's narrators and their introductory song, "A Cautionary Tale" is like a foreshadowing tweet, so that the plot details above are hardly a giveaway. As for the updated dialogue, obviously none e of the Plastics in the movie would have said "Sometimes I feel like an Iphone without a case." And for the iphone addicted teens in the audience, the manually created "burn book" to trash classmates by Regina and her acolytes is a campy artifact from another era.
Though Fey has cleverly slipped a dash of new and now into an established crowed-pleasing franchise, Mean Girls is not on the level of truly fresh high school musicals like Hair Spray and Dear Evan Hansen, but more a musical version of what was once classified as B-Movies (the minor half of the double headers that movie theaters used to feature long ago). Thus, the real "fetch" credit here belongs to Nicholaw, his designers and the triple-threat performances.
Nicholaw's production is chockablock with colorful visuals punctuated with the uber-animated choreography. The opening number in which Cady recollects her Kenya life and with the ensemble costumed and moving as half jungle animals is a delightfully sly parody of The Lion King (still the most artful of the Disney screen to stage adaptations), that also serves as a counterpoint of the different kind of jungle she's headed for back in the American heartland.
The ten main players enjoyably sing and dance their way into the personas of the key characters. Taylor Louderman, Kate Rockwell and Ashley Park are especially delicious as the bossy Regina who for all her queenly stance sings "I never weigh more than one-fifteen," and her acolytes, the clueless and ever anxious Karen and Gretchen. Barrett Wilbert Weed and Grey Henson make the most of their beefed up presence as the show's narrators.
While there's no problem with the performers' singing, the musical numbers provided by Fey's husband Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin are more serviceable than memorable. If I had to single out a couple of standout numbers it would be Gretchen's poignant "What's Wrong With Me" and the rousing "Fearless" that ends the first act and is reprised by Cady in the second and better second act.
Most likely Mean Girls will compete with Frozen, the other recently opened movie-to-musical adaptation aimed at the teen demographic. While both are typical true to the established crowd-pleasing source materials, my guess is that the vibrant staging of Mean Girls will win the competition. And the hope it left me with is that Tina Fey would apply her indisputable satiric talents to give us a brand-new show.
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Book by Tina Fey, based on her screenplay for the film
Music by Jeff Richmond and lyrics by Nell Benjam
Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
Principle Cast Members: Erika Henningsen as Cady Heron, Taylor Louderman as Regina George, Ashley Park as Gretchen Wieners, Kate Rockwell as Karen Smith, Barrett Wilbert Weed as Janis Sarkisian, Grey Henson as Damian Hubbard, Kerry Butler as Ms. Norbury, Kyle Selig as Aaron Samuels, Cheech Manohar as Kevin Gnapoor, Rick Younger as Mr. Duvall.
Set: Scott Pask
Costumes: Gregg Barnes
Lighting: Kenneth Posner
Sound: Brian Ronan
Video Design:Finn Ross & Adam Young
Hair: Josh Marquette
Music Director: Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Orchestrations: John Clancy
Dance & Incidental Music: Glen Kelly
Music coordinator: Howard Joines
Stage Manager: Holly Coombs
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours including 1 intermission
August Wilson Theatre 245 West 52nd Street
From 3/12/18; opening 4/08/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 4/08 press matinee
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