Clueless, The Musical, has touched down in New York, and it is my duty to report that the verdict is: Whatever.
The project certainly seemed like a good idea. At a time when studio vaults are being plundered for stageable IP, why not take a beloved, self-aware, hilarious 1995 Jane Austen update and adapt it for theater? Even better, why not musicalize it with iconic ’90s songs? And, best of all, why not let Amy Heckerling, the movie’s insightful, sardonic, hilarious writer and director, adapt her own film?
What’s on stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center, where Clueless, The Musical, opened tonight in a New Group production, is a pretty good argument for why not. Heckerling seems far too close to her original material, and far too unfamiliar with what makes a ’90s spoof work in 2018—or with what makes a property work as a musical, rather than as a movie—to bring alive on stage anything close to the movie’s light, ironic touch.
That’s not to say it’s all bad. Dove Cameron, the Disney Channel ingenue, stars as Cher Horowitz, and she’s dynamite, a charismatic, confident singer who makes a fine center for the show. Director Kristin Hanggi, best known here for Rock of Ages, does her best to keep the overlong story moving briskly forward (the 100-minute movie has somehow become a nearly two and a half hour musical), even if she’s putting on a show seemingly designed for a cavernous Broadway barn in a 199-seat space with “Jewel Box” in its name.
To her credit, choreographer Kelly Devine, who also worked on Rock of Ages, takes full of advantage of her cast of apparent high-schoolers to deliver propulsive, joyous dancing. The costumes, by Amy Clark, are wonderful, not just Cher’s iconic yellow-plaid ensembles but a full, fun range of winking ’90s-wear.
But the script, while hitting all of its expected marks—one still rolls with one’s homies, natch—never achieves any lift. Many ’90s references feel forgotten, not clever. (Who is the audience for a throwaway “Must-See TV” joke?) It’s a famously L.A.-set story, but, still, other jokes fall flat for a New York audience. (There’s a song mocking communities in the San Fernando Valley. No one needs a Sherman Oaks Galleria joke.)
But worse are the songs. This is a musical without original music; instead, ’90s hits serve as the score, with lyrics adapted to fit the needs of the story. The lyrics are awful. They’re obvious, banal, often badly rhymed. In several notable cases, they don’t even scan correctly. A good example is the end of Act One, when Cher and her ex-step-brother, Josh (played in the movie by Paul Rudd and here by Dave Thomas Brown, who is perhaps equally handsome but fresh-faced and earnest rather than sardonic), start to realize they might have feelings for each other. It’s a big, high-impact number, performed as a medley of Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” (sung by Cher) and Joan Osbourne’s “One of Us.” And in it, Josh wonders: “What if Cher didn’t have a trust?”
First, that’s just a terrible, badly phrased sentence. Second, it’s introducing a whole new idea—Cher is spoiled, yes, but there’s been no previous discussion of a trust fund (and Josh comes from the same moneyed world, so the critique doesn’t even make sense). But, most important, it has too many syllables. The lyric, famously, is “What if God was one of us?” Seven beats. This is eight. It doesn’t work. (And then “trust” is rhymed, still, with “bus.”)
On top of the bad lyrics, the songs don’t function as songs should in a musical. There aren’t themes for the different characters, motifs through the show, reprises. Rock of Ages, another L.A.-set quasi-parody with a self-consciously silly premise, showed that era-appropriate pop songs can also work as theater songs. Here, they don’t.
Ultimately, Clueless, The Musical, can’t help feeling like a let’s-put-on-a-show college pageant: Take a movie we love, slap in some favorite songs with (badly) modified lyrics, and laugh at all the goofy jokes. That approach would likely work in a basement rec room, with a happy, not-quite-sober audience. At a professional theater? As if.
Clueless, The Musical opened December 11, 2018, at Signature Center and runs through January 12, 2019. Tickets and information: thenewgroup.org