Theater review by Adam Feldman
Teenage girls rule in the tart but sweet new Broadway musical Mean Girls. But their system of high-school government is far from a democracy: It’s a reign of terror, angst and mall fashions, where popularity is arrogated and then ruthlessly enforced. Having spent her childhood being home-schooled in Kenya, nature and math enthusiast Cady (Erika Henningsen) is initially confused by the rigid caste system of her new school in Chicago. She tries to be nice, but the ruthlessness of American teenage culture brings out Cady’s predatory instincts. She reverts to the mean.
A canny crossbreed of Heathers and Hairspray, the musical has been adapted by Tina Fey from her own 2004 cult movie, and updated to reflect the new realities of smartphones and social media. Fey is one of the sharpest comic writers in America, and the show remains, in some sense, her vehicle: an auto de Fey, burning with bookish anger at the limits young women place on each other and themselves. (Her film role as a pushy calculus teacher is amusingly evoked by Kerry Butler, who also plays the other adult women.)
But this version of Mean Girls is not just a copy of the original. The most famous lines from the screenplay are here, but Casey Nicholaw’s energetic staging wisely breezes past them; the newer jokes get bigger laughs, while the score—by Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin—successfully builds on Fey’s knowingly corrective tone. (“This is modern feminism talkin’,” sings a high-heeled ditz in one of Benjamin’s most Feyish lyrics. “I expect to run the world / In shoes I cannot walk in.”)
Where Mean Girls glows most is in the spotlight it shines on its cast. Taylor Louderman is sensational as the blackhearted Regina, fearsome leader of the queen-beeyatch trio known as the Plastics. (Richmond gives her brassy, Bond-villain musical themes.) Flanking her are the manically insecure Gretchen (Ashley Park, her confusion infused with real feeling) and the chipper, empty-headed Karen (an extremely funny Kate Rockwell, with a tottering walk and a face like a blank check); on the opposite side of the social battlefield are the gothy “art freak” Janis (Barrett Wilbert Weed, a rich presence and powerhouse vocalist) and the brightly flaming Damian (Grey Henson, whose second-act tap number, “Stop,” does exactly that to the show). Mean Girls’s gospel of female self-actualization is borne out in the platform it provides for some of the most exciting young performers in musical theater. They bring a lot to the cafeteria table.
August Wilson Theatre (Broadway). Book by Tina Fey. Music by Jeff Richmond. Lyrics by Nell Benjamin. Directed by Casey Nicholaw. With Erika Henningsen, Taylor Louderman. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.