Tina Fey‘s 2004 high school comedy Mean Girls is the latest film to get the screen-to-stage treatment, in a fresh and fun Broadway musical that’s so good, it’ll make every day feel like October 3 (A.K.A. the day that Aaron Samuels asked Cady Heron what day it is in math class — now known as Mean Girls day).
Much of the plot, based loosely on Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 self-help title Queen Bees and Wannabes, remains the same — though book-writer Fey has taken her original screenplay and modernized it for a 2018 audience.
We still follow new student Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen) as she moves from the safety of being home-schooled by her parents in Kenya to the true wild animal kingdom of Chicago’s fictional North Shore High School, where a trio of ferocious frenemies known as “The Plastics” rule the halls. Cady still links up with punk art-nerd Janis Sarkisian and her “too gay to function” BFF Damian Hubbard (the scene-sealing Barrett Wilbert Weed and Grey Henson, respectively) to take down the pink-clad predators from the inside out.
And yes, reigning “Queen of Mean” Regina George (Taylor Louderman, delightfully devious with a powerhouse voice) still gets hit by a bus.
Die hard fans of the property will be satisfied, especially because some of Mean Girls‘ most-popular quotes are repeated word-for-word here. Lines like “Stop trying to make fetch happen,” “On Wednesdays we wear pink,” “You can’t sit with us,” “Grool,” “You go, Glen Coco,” and “She doesn’t even go here” still bring the laughs all these years later — each lighting up the theater with cheers as if it were a rock concert.
Heck, the Burn Book — the most iconic prop from the film — got entrance applause when it first appeared on stage.
But things don’t always go the way they did in the movie. Gone are the three-way phone calls (who uses phones to call anyone anymore, anyway?), in exchange for viral memes and Internet bullying. Topical references to RuPaul’s Drag Race, hashtags, cell phone cases, and a certain president’s Twitter account help keep the story feeling new, which should delight first-time viewers.
The songs help too. Fey’s husband of 17 years Jeff Richmond, who has worked with his wife on 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, has composed a series of entertaining ditties with the help of witty co-lyricist Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde the Musical) that keep the laughs coming.
As a first-time Broadway composer, not all of Richmond’s songs are hits. But the ones that work really work and director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s swift staging makes those scenes all the more invigorating.
Highlights include a song where Janis and Damian give Cady a tour of North Shore’s cliques (“Where Do You Belong?”) and the ultimate house party jam, “Whose House Is This?,” that will feel familiar to anyone who has ever seen a teen movie.
Two tunes from Regina George’s fellow Plastics also click: a Halloween tribute to slutty costumes called “Sexy” sung by “the dumbest person you’ll ever meet” Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell, who finds brilliance in Karen’s dimness); and “What’s Wrong with Me?” — an anthem of insecurity that Gretchen Weiners (Ashley Park, courageously committed) sings whenever George turns her focus on someone else.
Janis gets an empowering act two number “I’d Rather Be Me” that is sure to inspire thousands of YouTube covers, with the outcast declaring, “Just raise your [middle] finger / And solemnly swear / ‘Whatever they say about me / I don’t care!’ “
Performances throughout are all strong, though Louderman needed a final song to give us a chance to see Regina’s humanity. The hilarious Kerry Butler (Hairspray) disappears into all the adult female roles. As Regina’s “Cool Mom” Mrs/ George, she channels every Real Housewife ever; and as teacher Ms. Norbury, she does such a solid Fey impression, you’ll think the SNL alum was cameoing in her own show (Fey does do the pre-curtain speech, for what it’s worth).
Henson is easily Mean Girls‘ brightest star. Costumed in a series of pop-culture T-shirts, he embraces Damian’s sass and shade, scoring laughs with every line he delvers. Henson also stops the show with the second act tap opener, appropriately titled “Stop.” The song has Damien urging Cady to show some restraint when pursuing a boy, singing, “Stop / When you send five texts / And you get none back / So you wanna send a sixth one / Stop.”
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That’s also an example of where Mean Girls is at its best: when Fey opens up the piece to challenges young females are facing beyond the Burn Book. In the original movie, Fey used high school as a microcosm of the real word, breaking down the pitfalls of girl-on-girl crime. She still champions feminine independence here, but the musical finds more nuance in the mean that was lost before. These girls just aren’t mean to each other, they’re also mean to themselves.
As Regina puts it at one point, “Don’t apologize for things that aren’t your fault. And never apologize for being a boss.”
Now if that isn’t fetch, I don’t know what is.
Mean Girls is now open on Broadway.