It’s fun, it’s pink, it’s very Tina Fey.
The pre-Broadway world premiere of Mean Girls officially opened at the National Theatre last night. Judging from the excitement in the theater (care to wait in line to buy a “So Fetch” hat, anyone?), this is a show with a built-in fan base. One imagines that the performers could have simply stood on stage reading lines from the movie script and the audience would have howled with approval. But Mean Girls the musical does so much more. With excellent performances from some of Broadway’s hottest up-and-comers, great dance numbers, and flawless set design, this show delivers the goods and leaves audiences deeply satisfied. Oh, and Tina Fey’s contribution? Predictably hilarious.
Fey’s book carries us seamlessly from one plot point to another with a lot of laughter and plenty of content from the original film. You have the burn book, the sexy Halloween costumes, the girl who “doesn’t even go here,” and the references to “fetch” and “cheese fries.” You have the ruling triumvirate of “the Plastics,” known for their perfect looks and stratospheric popularity, the duo of lovable outcasts, and Cady Heron, the formerly homeschooled teen whose parents raised her in Africa before returning to the US.
Playing the roles of social outcasts Janis Sarkisian and Damian Hubbard are Barrett Wilbert Weed and Grey Henson. The pair serve as the narrators of the show, explaining Cady’s African backstory in the opening number “Wild Life” and helping us move from the jungles of Kenya to Cady’s new high school in Chicago. Henson was a clear fan favorite, stealing every scene he was in and throwing out effortless one-liners that elicited peals of laughter from the audience.
Impressive LED graphics are flawlessly employed in this opening number and throughout the show, allowing us to move effortlessly from the African savannah to a high school cafeteria, to Regina George’s enormous bedroom (“I made my parents trade me.”) to a suburban mall.
A highlight of Act I was the lunchroom number “Where Do You Belong?” in which Damian describes to Cady the various cliques you find in American high schools: the art goths, the show choir nerds, the anorexics and the overeaters. The song showcases stellar choreography by Tony Award-winning Director and Choreographer Casey Nicholaw, and a dance number featuring bright red lunch trays that brought to mind an old Esther Williams dance routine.
Leading the hierarchy of school cliques, of course, are the Plastics, led by Queen Bee Regina George, played with chilling sophistication by Taylor Louderman. Lyricist Nell Benjamin provided Louderman’s Regina George with perhaps the wittiest lyric of the night in the comically cruel, and very memorable refrain “My name is Regina George, and I am a massive deal…” Watching Louderman descend from a moving lunch table in a halo of smoke, with eyes cold as ice and stilettos capable of grinding mere mortals to dust was enough to chill the blood of any insecure high-school female.
Broadway veterans Ashley Park and Kate Rockwell play Regina’s sidekicks, Gretchen Wieners and Karen Smith. Kate Rockwell’s big solo number “Sexy” features her bubble-brained comedic timing and a song and dance parade of “sexy” Halloween costumes including sexy corn, sexy Eleanor Roosevelt, and sexy Abe Lincoln in a scene with humor very reminiscent of Fey’s successful TV comedy 30 Rock.
Ashley Park has become a New York golden girl this year with a string of impressive roles in the recent revival of Sunday in the Park with George and the off-Broadway hit KPOP. Park is a master of physical comedy and facial expressions and I was glad to see her get her own song, “What’s Wrong with Me?” in Act I. A forgettable song, unfortunately, but a chance for Park to get some deserved time in the spotlight.
Indeed, if there is one piece of this brilliant theatrical puzzle that could use some tweaking, it is Composer Jeff Richmond’s music. There are plenty of upbeat, feel-good numbers, but I have seen the show twice now and the first time I left the theater unable to hum a single tune, which is a problem. The music at times seems repetitive and some of the ballads dull.
Erika Henningsen turns out a solid performance as Cady Heron and it is fun to watch her move from naive homeschooler to popular school diva, to an evolved and kind leader. Henningsen had great chemistry with Kyle Selig (crush Aaron Samuels) in the songs “Stupid with Love” and “More is Better” and she led the cast with ease.
Broadway veteran Kerry Butler played all three adult female characters, and it’s a coin toss as to which of the three portrayals deserves the biggest thumbs up. Her Ms. Norbury, the role Tina Fey played in the movie, was like a homage to Fey herself. I had to squint and listen to be sure that it wasn’t really Fey up there onstage. But her portrayal of insecure, wanna-be-cool-mom Mrs. George was perhaps even better. In her pink velour tracksuit and handheld chihuahua, she delivered line after hilarious line.
Mean Girls still has a few kinks to work out, mostly in its score, and I imagine a few new songs will be inserted before it makes its way to New York, but it is as fun and frivolous a night as one can have at the theater. It’s a fair bet that Mean Girls will be a major contender on Broadway this season.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.