Not unlike Sweeney Todd opening with “attend the tale,” Mean Girls the stage musical opens with a “Cautionary Tale” against vengeance. There are deep lessons to be learned here about the jungle of high school, popularity, cruelty, betrayal, and how to execute a decent musical adaptation that managed to earn 12 Tony Awards nominations. A stage vamp of Tina Fey’s 2004 teen comedy, Mean Girls the musical follows the trend of adapting non-musical movies like Waitress and Groundhog Day to the musical Broadway format. It holds the strengths of a good movie-to-musical adaptation, complete with Fey returning to write the book to freshen the story for today.
Following the blueprints of the film, a young teenager, Cady (Erika Henningsen), is uprooted from her home-schooled life in Kenya, Africa and placed in the cruel battlefield of public high school. She is not particularly well-versed in friend-making and school hierarchy, though two misfits help guide and befriend her. However, she also catches the attention of the queen bee Regina George (Taylor Louderman), who runs a domineering clique known as “The Plastics.” She recruits Cady as a fourth ranger, not because she values Cady but because she sees a new plaything and pawn. Cady becomes absorbed and intrigued by Regina’s impenetrable and venomous spirit, and a series of vengeful antics leads to the ingénue Cady usurping the alpha queen bee at the expense of her own principles and identity.
Henningsen is a sweet lead as Cady, bubbly while susceptible to the seduction of popularity, keeping her light personality even when she experiments with the dark side. Cady goes through her arc seamlessly, though she’s not as vibrant as the friends she makes along the way. Her misfit pals Damian (a jolly Grey Henson) and Janis (Barrett Wilbert Weed carries over her rocking mellowness from the Heathers musical) have delicious quirks as misfits with a strong rapport.
By the sultry “Meet The Plastics,” the musical picks up with speed. Bow howdy, does Regina make an entrance, perched on a lunch table. Louderman as Regina wreaks a stunning presence from her first verse, “I am a massive deal / fear me, love me.” She steams with allure, despite her mean-spirited nature. Though for all her villainy, her arrogance does feel motivated by self-preservation.
Regina’s minions Gretchen and Karen are scene-stealers, courtesy of numbers that flesh out their personalities. On the Wednesday night I attended, understudies Devon Hadsell and Jonalyn Saxer portrayed Gretchen and Karen respectively with gusto. Whereas the movie makes fun of their superficiality, the musical finds humor in their shortcomings while never ridiculing them. Gretchen hungers to be a trusty secret-keeper despite her loose lips tendencies, described by her leitmotif “What’s wrong with me?” that’s equal parts running gag and an empathetic cue. She’s no saint, but you relate to her insecurity to be loved by someone in power. Although Karen is the dumbest of the bunch, she is not dim and asserts her own humanity and her line "I'm actually a human being and not a prop! Maybe we should just... teach boys not to do that!" earned a storm of applause.
At its best, musical adaptations of non-movie musicals can stir a momentum and liveliness to old tales and familiar plots. Mean Girls gets the job done. When we meet Cady in Kenya, the ensemble crawls around in garish animal costumes, an affectionate parody of Julie Taymor’s craft on Broadway’s The Lion King, to parallel the jungle of Cady’s new school. The parallel resurfaces as Cady dissects the school hierarchy with the rocking number “Apex Predator,” thrilled that she has a part in Regina’s pack while also wary of the drawbacks of being a subordinate. Even when the lyrics and score by Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin can feel too overstuffed to settle into the classic musical consciousness, the overall production avoids feeling coldly manufactured with bursts of comedic and dramatic inspiration.
With Kenneth Posner’s lighting design, the stage has a technical thrill that pops with color. In the rousing number “World Burn” where Regina photocopies her Burn Book in a bid to frame Cady, the vengeful queen bee leers over a Xerox machine that illuminates her like a witch over her brew. Scott Pask’s scenic design utilizes an encompassing screen backdrop that switches economically from setting to setting. It allows for illustrative visual gags, such as one where Karen envisions a world mixed with world peace and Halloween that has to be seen to be believed.
Fans will savor the sprinkles of new jokes, from a homage to Transformers and social media gags. To top it all off, Fey’s script hurls two digs at the Trump administration, a Russian hacking joke and a quotable “But the President blocked me on Twitter” that provoked audience cheers the night I was in attendance.
Above all else, Mean Girls prioritizes the humanity of its players. For characters that are thicky archetypal, no one is written as a caricature. For a musical that sets up a PSA-like intro, it doesn’t moralize or preach but offers timeless pearls of wisdom about what it means to be yourself in the end. Its musicality doesn’t recap its source material as much as it refreshes and reinvigorates it. Mean Girls on Broadway is a crowd-pleaser.
Mean Girls is playing at the August Wilson Theatre at 245 West 52nd Street in Midtown Manhattan.