I haven’t, like most of this audience, seen the 2004 film based on Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 non-fiction self-help book Queen Bees and Wannabes. (Increase of social media compounds issues and brings the story somewhat up to date.) I don’t knowingly react half way through a phrase, cheer at the appearance of a favored character/scene, or have my photo taken in front of theater. This wry, carbonated musical is therefore fresh in my eyes. Looking around, I observe as many boomers as high-schoolers, common memories bonding.
The splendiferous Tina Fey writes with unerring ear, double-edged wit, and empathy. Mean Girls is warm, dark, funny and not (quite) overburdened by moral. Music (Jeff Richmond) is bright, if unmemorable; lyrics (Nell Benjamin) are so close to Fey’s sensibility one suspects a mind-meld. (Maybe next time the multifaceted artist will attempt her own.) The show is about girl power, friendship, and individuality. Except for being too long, it definitely works.
Grey Henson, Barrett Wilbert Weed, Erika Henningsen
Kind of narrated by BFFs Janis Sarkisian (Barrett Wilbert Weed – whose personification lacks definition), a streaked-hair/punk, and “too gay to be functional” Damian Hubbard (Grey Henson, low key and appealing), our story begins in Kenya. Paper mache and painted cloth animals (costumes) that look, one presumes, purposefully amateur, populate the stage. Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen) has been raised and home schooled by American parents who’ve lost an unspecified grant and must return home to Chicago. The heroine can’t wait.
North Shore High School is, however, anything but welcoming. Cliques and social climbing abound. Alone at lunch, Cady eats her sandwich in a bathroom stall. All she can think about is fitting in. Janice and Damian rescue this new outsider and give her a table by table tour of “groups” in the cafeteria. An ensuing musical number deftly uses red plastic trays in semaphore.
Ashley Park, Taylor Louderman, Kate Rockwell, Erika Henningsen
The school’s resident queen bee is attractive, egotistical Regina George (Taylor Louderman)who with two devoted confederates, insecure-as-they-come Gretchen Wieners (Ashley Park) and sweet but admittedly dumb Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell) make up “The Plastics.” Think Barbie Doll. Her only friends warn Cady, but she’s taken on and in by the trio admiring, Regina, a la jungle hierarchy, as a predatory alpha.
In math class (Cady excels) the heroine meets and falls for Aaron Samuels (Kyle Selig – clean-cut and credible) only to learn that 1. Math geeks are social suicide and 2. He’s Regina’s ex. An attempt to play dumb in class (effective, if musty feminine wiles: “That shit always works”) and hide her crush doesn’t last. Regina finds out and reacquires the boy – because she can.
Kyle Selig and Erika Henningsen
The three friends decide on revenge. “We have to take away Regina’s only accomplishment, being hot.” This is, after all, “a cautionary tale.” In the delightfully droll, politically incorrect process, Cady unwittingly turns into a mean girl clone which at first succeeds then backfires horribly.
There’s an out of control Halloween party, betrayal of Janice (and Damian), the principal’s engineered discovery of a “Burn Book” with revealing and/or nasty, made-up comments about each member of the class and school staff (one teacher has her home swept for drugs as a result), a disastrous talent show, a math club win (we could’ve done without Cady’s political speech), a Spring Fling (Really? Very 1950s), realignment of romance (with good values), and, at last, friendship (or at least truce) replete with personal growth.
Ben Cook, Nikhil Saboo, Cheech Manohar (The Math Club), Erika Henningsen, Kerry Butler
The Plastics are beautifully cast, each with an excellent voice and spot-on character embodiment. Taylor Louderman (Regina) convincingly emulates a young, kitten-with-claws Ann Margaret with wowza vocals. Ashley Park (Gretchen) is as good a comedienne, including deft physical acting, as she was a sympathetic Tuptim in The King and I. Kate Rockwell (Karen) is wide-eyed and thoroughly engaging.
Erika Henningsen (Cady) is terrific. Her uber-mobile face shows everything, yet never regresses to cartoon. She’s likeable, sympathetic and has a terrific voice.
Playing a number of roles with pitch perfect timing and believability, Kerry Butler is especially grand as Regina’s mom, a tree from which the acorn didn’t drop far. Trying hard, the perfectly turned out, narcissistic Mrs. George always obtusely makes things worse. Her libidinous Pekinese is priceless.
In the small role of Principal Duvall, Rick Younger delivers understated satire hand in hand with truth.
Director/Choreographer Casey Nicholaw always delivers with gusto and imagination. Here he has an opportunity for more nuance than with completely fanciful characters and, despite the story’s broad strokes, gives us people to whom we naturally respond. Pacing is swell. Choreography could be less generic.
Scott Pask’s Sets serve but would be nothing without Video Design by Finn Ross and Adam Young. (This show is tour-ready.) While interior/exterior changes are clever and effective, a finger paint look often used between appears simply at a loss and various patterns look like clip art.
Gregg Barnes (Costumes) works wonders with a modified fat suit and creates the most wonderful Transformers. His student apparel is more or less accurate but lacks theatrical vibrancy which would make a more colorful stage.
Mean Girls is lively, caustic fun for adults and teenagers alike. Despite minor caveats, the show’s a winner even for the uninitiated.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Erika Henningsen, Ashley Park, Taylor Louderman, Kate Rockwell
Book by Tina Fey
Music by Jeff Richmond, Lyrics by Nell Benjamin
Based on the Paramount Pictures film Mean Girls
Directed/Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
August Wilson Theatre
245 West 52nd Street