There are times when modest ambitions are appropriate and commendable—say, when you’re a screenwriter making your theatrical debut with yet another musical adaptation of a popular film comedy.
Clueless, the movie in question this time out, was arguably even more central to the cultural zeitgeist of its time than Mean Girls would be about a decade later. Amy Heckerling’s 1995 account (inspired by Jane Austen’s Emma, lest we forget) of a Beverly Hills teen queen who learns there are more important things than designer brands made “As if!” an inescapable mantra and Alicia Silverstone, who played the superficially superficial but good-hearted Cher, a superstar, at least for a couple of years.
But unlike Tina Fey, who in adapting Mean Girls for the stage enlisted a composer and lyricist to help flesh out the story and make it relevant for a new generation of girls and women—while, to her credit, sustaining the sharp satirical sense that made the original fly—Heckerling revels unabashedly in nostalgia, even forgoing an original score to insert winkingly reworked versions of ’90s pop hits made temporarily ubiquitous by the likes of Ace of Base, Edwyn Collins, Des’ree, En Vogue, 4 Non Blondes and NSYNC (whose “Bye Bye Bye” brings us into the first month of 2000).
[Read Jesse Oxfeld’s ★★★ review here.]
That’s not to say that Clueless, The Musical will appeal only to those old enough to remember those ditties, or young enough to have cared about them. True, at the preview I caught, the loudest laughs came from a contingent of thirtysomethings, who seemed unable to contain themselves when Cher’s college-aged ex-stepbrother, Josh, mocked her with a twist on the Spin Doctors’ “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong”—or later, when Cher and Josh expressed the mutual frustration thinly veiling their mutual attraction by revisiting two of the decade’s most irresistibly pining singles, Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” and Joan Osborne’s “One of Us.”
But a posse of pre-adolescent girls also in attendance seemed charmed as well, and not just because Cher is played here by Disney Channel star Dove Cameron, a dewy blonde who in recent years has portrayed the sly, feisty daughter of Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty’s nemesis, in the Descendants film series. Cameron’s Cher, in contrast, seems pretty guileless, even when she and “bestie” Dionne are scheming to raise their grades by goading a pair of teachers into romantic bliss. Where Silverstone brought a sort of knowing dizziness to the spoiled teenager’s mix of narcissism and genuine good intentions, Cameron is more conventionally ingenuous; if this Cher weren’t going on shopping sprees and gushing about how her litigator father “gets $500 an hour to fight with people”—one of numerous lines and jokes inserted seamlessly from the film—she could pass for a homecoming queen in any middle-class American town.
If the resulting performance is less distinctly droll, it works in this context, with Cameron bringing sweetness and light to the musical—extending to her perfectly serviceable singing voice—while the other young actors, under Kristin Hanggi’s fleet direction, provide the spice. Zurin Villanueva and Gilbert L. Bailey II flirt and spar winningly as Dionne and her strutting but innocuous beau, Murray, while Ephie Aardema brings a quirky wit to Tai, the eccentric girl Cher determines to make over in her own image.
Will Connolly and Justin Mortelliti lend more comic punch as, respectively, the school stoner, Travis, and Christian, a slick new student who catches Cher’s eye but turns out not to play on her team, sexually speaking. Travis’s fondness for recreational drugs and Christian’s homosexuality are underlined more than they were on screen, in acknowledgment of the benefits of tolerance and clean living; there’s also a quick nod to #MeToo-era social consciousness, in a post-party encounter between Cher and a guy who might be described in generous terms as a cad.
Mostly, though, Heckerling and Hanggi milk the material and the era that’s their focus for laughs and general merriment, abetted by Kelly Devine’s kinetic, jubilant choreography, Beowulf Boritt’s clean but fanciful set design and Amy Clark’s colorful, period-perfect costumes. “You got the dreamer’s disease,” Josh sings to Cher towards the end, exuberantly revisiting the New Radicals’ one-hit-wondrous “You Get What You Give.” The dream may point back to the past in this case, but the condition is delightfully infectious nonetheless.