At the Nederlander Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Mean Girls,” the musical now at the Nederlander Theatre, is the stage adaptation of the 2004 Tina Fey movie of the same name. Fey has also written the book of the musical, guaranteeing lots of snappy verbal humor, much of it one liners that reflect her Second City experiences in Chicago during the 1990’s. Casey Nicholaw is the director and choreographer, providing the most full throttle singing and dancing show I’ve seen since “Hairspray.”
“Mean Girls,” as the eager and responsive young female audiences will know going into the theater, portrays the tribulations of Cady Heron, a teenager transfer from home schooling in Kenya to the power grid of life in North High School in suburban Chicago. Cady quickly encounters the Mean Girls, also known as the Plastics because of their hard surface. The top Mean Girl, also proudly answering to the title of the “Queen of Beasts,” is Regina George, who rules the social stratums of the high school with an iron hand.
Regina leads fellow Mean Girls Gretchen Wieners and Karen Smith. Together they make the social rules, and girls best follow them or risk social obloquy (“You can’t wear a tank top two days in a row” and “You can only wear your hair in a pony tail once a week.”) Regina is the unquestioned dictator, her two followers actually being pretty nice kids. How Regina rules the social roost so fearfully single handedly is a plot point that the audience has to take on faith.
The first act is mostly involved with Cady being introduced into the school culture with the aid of new high school friends Damien Hubbard and Julia Sarkisian. The introduction includes a lunchroom survey of the assorted student body cliques: ‘Varsity jocks and JV jocks/Will throw you in a locker if you say ‘Hello”/The rich stoners hate the gangsta whites/Though they’re all smoking the same oregano.” To advance the plot, the Plastics unaccountably take newcomer Cady into their closed group and the wafer thin plot builds from that.
The opening act is an almost continuous surge of high velocity ensemble dancing, with the students going full tilt in their gaudy costumes (the parents must have a very deep clothing budget for their girls), the boys and girls leaping and gyrating across the stage in splendid synchronized abandon.
Little of narrative importance happens in the first act but the second act shifts gears into a series of high minded sentiments aroused by Cady being ostracized by her classmates and a popular teacher being accused of dealing drugs. By the time the last upbeat sentiment is launched, the audience has received instruction about the shallowness of seeking popularity and other moralizing dictums applicable to teenage life. By the final scene, everything is sorted out and even Regina comes up looking good while recovering from being hit by a school bus, a sensational visual moment sprung upon the startled audience.
The touchy feely elements in “Mean Girls” are easy enough to take, but this is a show to be seen for its witty dialogue (Fey) and lyrics (Nell Benjamin), with Fey’s husband Jeff Richmond composing the music. The score is an eclectic accumulation of tunes that range from rock music to rhythm and blues and pop and rap. I even detected a melody with a James Bond sound and a number that could have been an outtake from the score of “Wicked.”.
The front line cast is outstanding. Danielle Wade has a powerful expressive voice as Cady and has the acting chops to bring alive all the twists and turns Cady endures at North High School without the role turning corny. Eric Huffman and Mary Kate Morrissey provide Cady with splendid singing and dancing support, Morrissey with a towering voice in emotional moments and Huffman droll with a funny gay edge.
Mariah Beth Rose plays the pivotal character of Regina until the role is largely supplanted by Cady in the second act. Rose could use a little more calculating menace in her Queen Beast. She didn’t come across sufficiently as an intimating teenager who rules her little kingdom with cruel finality.
Rose’s character was actually upstaged by Jonalyn Saxer’s Karen, a tall willowy blonde who manages to take the stereotype of the dumb blonde to fresh levels of comic credibility. Saxer makes Karen a virtual costar in the story and can she ever sing and dance! Megan Masako Bailey is the third Plastic, actually a sweet and vulnerable girl burdened by insecurities. So two of the three Mean Girls are really not so mean and Regina isn’t quite mean enough, but the singing and dancing paper over any such character inconsistencies.
The physical production is spectacular. Scott Pask is the scenic designer, Gregg Barnes the costume designer, Kenneth Posner the lighting designer, and Brian Ronan the sound designer. The video design by Finn Ross and Adam Young deluges the audience with gaudy high speed images and clever comic epigrams. There is such a potent abundance of action to absorb that the audience isn’t given the breathing time to reflect on the wobbly book.
“Mean Girls” is Broadway musical at its most technically accomplished. It doesn’t break any new ground and its second act sentiments of moral uplift are unarguably obvious. But the production is a genuinely exciting audience experience. I doubt the youthful members of the audience have ever seen so many first rate young men and women perform at such an exhilarating level for almost 2½ hours. It’s possible that some preteen and teenaged females in the audience will take to heart the upbeat messages the book offers, and recognize their own school world in the artificial world of “Mean Girls.” More likely, the young ladies and the adults who brought them, as well as almost anyone else in attendance at the Nederlander Theatre, will find the show business pleasures of the production their own sufficient rewards.
Mean Girls get a rating of
“Mean Girls” runs through January 26 at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 West Randolph Street. Most performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $120. Call 800 775 2000 or visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. December 2019
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