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“Calling other people stupid doesn’t make you smart,” says one of the characters in “Mean Girls.” So keeping that in mind, I won’t name any number of other recent tuners for comparison, but will simply state that this new musical adaptation of the popular 2004 film, now on display at the August Wilson Theatre, is indeed smart. Very smart, in fact -- which isn’t altogether surprising since the excellent, empowering and topical book (complete with one great anti-Trump zinger) is by the brilliant funny Tina Fey.
But great gags and well-meaning messages do not, on their own, a fine musical make. Among its other virtues, the show is superbly staged and choreographed by the peerless Casey Nicholaw, colorfully and cleverly designed by Scott Pask (sets), Gregg Barnes (costumes) and Finn Ross and Adam Young (video design), and, above all, perfectly cast, all of which makes 2 ½ hours fly by rather easily.
For those not familiar with the plot, it revolves around Cady Heron (the extraordinary Erika Henningsen in a star-making performance), a 16-year-old who has moved to Chicago from Africa and is desperate to fit in at her new high school. She’s immediately befriend by art geek and suspected lesbian Janis (the strong-voiced and always watchable Barrett Wilbert Weed) and the uber-gay Damien (the scene-stealing Grey Henson).
No sooner has Cady latched onto this offbeat but undeniably sincere pair, she gets seduced by the school’s queen bee, the icy Regina George (a superb, sometimes scary Taylor Loudermann) and joins her lioness mini-pack, which includes subservient pal Gretchen (the excellent Ashley Park) and pretty-but-no-so-smart Karen (the fabulous Kate Rockwell, making the utmost of the dumb blonde role).
Well, at first Cady is servant to two masters, palling around with the cool clique while also reporting back on what they say and do to Janis and Damian. Soon, however, she ends up going for blood when Regina takes back her ex-boyfriend – and Cady’s current crush -- Aaron (the adorable Kyle Selig). As time progresses, Cady not only wears Regina’s figurative crown (the real one comes later), but the head beneath it become filled with power, bad choices, and even betrayal. And, in more ways than one, let us say that pride does goeth before the fall!
In lesser hands, this could be very “afterschool special” stuff, but Nicholaw, Fey and company manage to keep the show’s tone consistently at a more adult level. That’s especially true when the effects of a “burn book” started by Regina turn out to have serious consequences for many of the teens, Aaron, and even math teacher Mrs. Norbury (the wonderful Kerry Butler, here doing a spot-on imitation of Fey; she also stands out in a few small scenes as both Regina’s vacuous mother and Cady’s earthy one).
Yes, one could hope for a better score than the serviceable one created by Jeff Richmond (Fey’s husband) and Nell Benjamin; most of the tunes are pleasant if instantly forgettable. (The main exceptions are “Fearless,” “I’d Rather Be Me,” and “I See Stars.”) And both in text and tunes, a little judicious cutting might have been advisable. (One more note: this show is not really for young children –they and their parents should head a few blocks south!)
But given a season of shockingly few original musicals on Broadway, let’s not quibble. Instead, let’s hear it for the “Girls”!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Erika Henningsen, Taylor Louderman, Ashley Park, Kate Rockwell, Barrett Wilbert Weed, Grey Henson, Kerry Butler, Kyle Selig, Cheech Manohar, Rick Younger
Preview Open/ Preview Close Dates
Preview Opening 3/12/2018
August Wilson Theatre
245 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019