They’re making fetch happen on 52nd Street.
The new Broadway musical Mean Girls opened at the August Wilson Theatre there tonight, and it is, to use a term coined in the 2004 movie on which it’s based and repeated in the musical, totally grool.
That’s a combination of great and cool, one the many bits of Girlsiana invented by Tina Fey, who wrote the movie’s screenplay (based on a book by the parenting expert Rosalind Wiseman), and repeated in the musical, for which she wrote the book. Fey is joined here by the composer Jeff Richmond, who is her husband, the lyricist Nell Benjamin, and, significantly, the director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, the vet of Book of Mormon and Spamalot (and so much more) who puts on a fun and funny show perhaps better than anyone else on Broadway.
That’s what they’ve achieved here: Mean Girls delightfully fun and funny, silly and sweet, energetic and adorable, sarcastic but good-hearted. It delights devoted fans of the movie, but it stands on its own stilettos as an original musical.
You know the story: Nice girl Cady moves back to the United States for high school after growing up with her biologists parents in Africa, where they do field work. Recognizing the tribal dynamics among American high schoolers as similar to those of the primates her parents studied, she decides to infiltrate the Alphas, a cool-girl (slash mean-girl) clique called the plastics, and undermine the queen of the plastics, a blonde terror named Regina George. Along the way, Cady falls in love with Regina’s ex, the hunky Aaron, and gets so caught up in her manipulations that she becomes just as bad a Regina. Ultimately, of course, good prevails, Cady and Aaron end up both kind and together, and it all it takes is a bus accident to bring about the happy ending.
Fey’s script retains the same story and many of the movie’s most famous lines, but she’s also created a fully theatrical world. Sweet-kid sidekicks Damian and Janis get framing-device opening and closing numbers, and Damian’s theatricality—he’s the one who is, of course, “almost too gay to function”—is amped up, putting a stage kid on stage.
But what works so well is that Fey’s smart, sly tone stays intact, even as Richmond and Benjamin add around 20 songs, a pop-rock pastiche of a score that’s sometimes guitar rock, sometime hip-hop-infused, occasionally old-time Broadway—there’s a big tap number, of course—and sometimes soulful, especially for Regina’s Adele-sounding, Bond-theme-like numbers. (Benjamin’s lyrics, of course, preserve Fey’s tone and wit.)
Even better, it’s all spectacularly performed by a razor-sharp young cast. They’re all great, but even so some stand out. Erika Henningsen knocks your socks off in her big numbers as Cady, and Taylor Louderman makes a powerful Regina. Ashley Park, as Gretchen Winters, the eager deputy to Regina’s tyranny, is the great comic talent of the show, and Grey Henson as too-gay-to-function Damian pulls off a sassy second-act opener that might be the highlight of the show. And Kerry Butler charms her way through all the adult-women roles, including Regina’s ditzy mom and also Ms. Norbury, the math teacher played by Fey in the movie and who here is costumed to bare more than a passing resemblance to a certain beloved comedic writer and actor.
Even with all that talent, though, it’s Nicholaw’s work that makes Mean Girls a triumph. From the nonstop action that lets one scene slide into the next to the exuberant choreography that sets teenagers dancing almost like apes in the moment Cady surveys the primate behavior to numbers that include both a real tap dance and, elsewhere, the audible effect of one, rendered with cafeteria trays, his direction sharp, sure, relentless (in the good way) and rousing.
Still, one quibble: As ably as this musical is constructed and performed, and even with its jokes about social media and smartphones, to update the movie script, it can still feel surprisingly out of touch with the moment. For a show about teenage angst and redemption, one that makes all the right progressive arguments for believing in yourself and being true to who you are, with the announced moral that “calling someone stupid won’t make you any smarter,” it’s incredibly white and straight. There’s an ethnically diverse ensemble of perfectly fit 20-somethings, of course, and one Asian actor (playing the pathologically submissive Gretchen). But all the other leads are white. And every teenager is straight, even all the hornily coupling band kids—except for roly-poly, sardonic, celibate Damian.
The otherwise thoroughly mediocre Escape to Margaritaville quietly includes one gay couple among the drunkenly cavorting island visitors. (They’d be miserable, of course, amid all the bro-ery. But they’re there.) And Miss You Like Hell, at the Public, features a noticeably diverse cast and chorus, including plus-sized and AARP-member dancers. It’s a shame this excellent show, with such excellent intentions, couldn’t see its way to such broad-mindedness.
Mean Girls opened April 8, 2018, at the August Wilson Theatre. Tickets and information: meangirlsonbroadway.com