Fey’s wit has brought her success on TV (most notably with 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live), and in movies (2004’s Mean Girls, which she wrote, being her best). Her book Bossypants was a best-seller. But none of that guaranteed that her musical version of Mean Girls would be a winner.
The good news is that the show is fiercely funny. It’s also packed with super-talented young actors who sing beautifully, dance energetically, and know how to land a joke. Fey and her collaborators have turned the travails of high school into a slick, exuberant musical.
Part of the credit goes to director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who keeps the show moving at a breathless pace. There are a lot of songs, most of them upbeat, and Nicholaw delivers big production numbers that are almost as clever as the ones he did for The Book of Mormon and Something Rotten. Leave it to Nicholaw to use red cafeteria trays for percussion and dance props.
Fans of the movie will remember the plot. Cady (Erika Henningsen) has moved from Kenya, where she was home-schooled, to North Shore High in suburban Illinois. After a brief Lion King parody—Nicholaw loves to send up other musicals in his ensemble numbers—Cady learns that most of her new classmates aren’t exactly welcoming. “New girl sucks,” they sing as they wheel their desks offstage.
Luckily for her, the art nerds Damian (Grey Henson), who is “almost too gay to function,” and his bestie Janis (Barrett Wilbert Weed) take Cady under their wings. “We volunteer to be your starter companions,” Damian says.
Things get complicated when Cady joins the Plastics, the coolest clique on campus. The leader is ice queen Regina George (Taylor Louderman), who rips lesser mortals to shreds as efficiently as a lioness. Her sidekicks are Gretchen Wieners (Ashley Park), who does Regina’s bidding and is terminally insecure, and Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell), who is pretty, blonde, and dumb as toast.
Cady happens to be really good at math, but she fails quizzes as a ploy to get extra help from her handsome classmate Aaron (Kyle Selig). It turns out Regina had dumped Aaron months earlier. When she hears that Cady wants to date Aaron she naturally wants him back and moves in for the kill.
One of the best songs in the first act is “Apex Predator,” which celebrates Regina as the school’s unchallenged queen of the beasts. (She towers above her lowly classmates, tossing scraps to them.) Another strong number is the funny and touching “What’s Wrong With Me?,” in which Gretchen wonders why nothing she does is ever good enough.
Some of the other first act songs are peppy and pleasant but hardly memorable. Perhaps because of the setting, a few songs recall the musical Bring It On, which was also based on a high school movie comedy. The Mean Girls songs similarly combine Broadway and pop influences. There are riffs on Katy Perry, as when Cady croons “It ro-o-o-ars” in the opening number.
The music is by Jeff Richmond (Fey’s husband and the composer of the catchy 30 Rock theme song), and the lyrics are by Nell Benjamin (co-writer of the musical Legally Blond). Their songs are more varied in the second act. For instance, it opens with Damian jauntily tap dancing while dispensing advice in “Stop.” Later Regina struts her stuff—and Louderman shows she can belt—in “Watch the World Burn.” Janis gets the feisty power ballad “I’d Rather Be Me.”
While Benjamin’s lyrics offer some laughs, it’s Fey’s dialogue that serves up the snarkiest lines. She has cleverly updated her screenplay while keeping some of its beloved catch phrases (including Gretchen’s contribution to the lexicon: “fetch,” meaning “cool”). Fey has worked in references to Facebook, Instagram, and cell phones, which have made high school even more difficult to navigate.
Finn Ross and Adam Young’s video design smartly incorporates Instagram messages, as well as selections from the rumor-mongering “Burn Book” that gets the Plastics in trouble. Scott Pask designed the efficient set.
Nicholaw’s direction and choreography are crowd-pleasing, if not quite as inspired as his best work. Some of the choreography is a bit too busy. Granted, high school kids are often hyper, but sometimes less movement is more.
Whether they’re singing, dancing, dissing each other, or having meltdowns, the actors are all terrific. Louderman, who played the new kid in Bring It On, shows star quality as Regina. Park is a riot as obsequious Gretchen, and Rockwell gets laughs whenever she opens her mouth as Karen. Even her blank stares are funny. Henningsen makes Cady easy to root for; by the end she looks a lot like the movie’s star, Lindsay Lohan. Grey Henson has great comic timing in addition to tap skills, and Weed shows off her powerful voice.
Broadway vet Kerry Butler juggles a few adult roles nicely. Thanks to costumes and wigs, the actress is almost unrecognizable in these parts.
Mean Girls should be a hit with teens, who (sadly) will be able to relate to all the mean-spiritedness and backstabbing. Some older theatregoers may not be eager to relive high school, or to see yet another musical based on a movie. But Mean Girls should win over most skeptics. High school has seldom been this much fun.
Mean Girls is at the August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street, New York, NY 10019. Get tickets at Ticketmaster.com or call 1-800-745-3000.