In LA, unauthorized musical adaptations of movies and TV shows have recently become almost as popular as juice cleanses. I’ve seen a few in the past couple months, and after really enjoying both the unauthorized Cruel Intentions musical and the unauthorized O.C. musical, getting tickets for The Unauthorized Musical Parody of Clueless, the latest offering of Rockwell Table & Stage, seemed like a no-brainer. I learned, however, that not all unauthorized musical adaptations are created equal, because this production of Clueless largely missed the mark.
Here’s the thing about successful musical parodies, particularly of already classic, entertaining source material—you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. While I acknowledge that much of the creative team behind Clueless is different from the minds behind both Cruel Intentions and The O.C., I am going to compare them anyway. What I loved about the Cruel Intentions and O.C. musicals is that they were incredibly straightforward. They simply told the pre-existing story, adding in thematically appropriate songs to help emphasize the humor and the big moments. Clueless went wrong in its very first scene, and, in my opinion, never recovered.
Clueless, which was adapted by Daniel Segura and Kate Pazakis, added a brand new framing device as an entry point into the story. We open on Emma (Laura L. Thomas) and her gay best friend, Weston (Tom Detrinis). Emma is feeling down about her upcoming 30-something birthday and a recent break-up, and Weston is trying to cheer her up. So, naturally, he suggests they act out their favorite movie, Clueless. Emma, of course, will be Cher, and Weston, in a gender-bending twist that ended up feeling more distracting and unnecessary than funny, will be Amber.
Then things get really weird. They go down a “rabbit hole” into the movie, where they assume their roles and interact with the other characters, who occasionally knowingly call “Cher” Emma for reasons that are never explained and make you wonder what the hell the rules are in this alternate universe/acting fantasy/who even knows. Josh exists the entire time in the movie universe, but midway through the show, during a brief glimpse of the “real world” Emma left behind, Emma’s ex-boyfriend goes down the rabbit hole in search of her and assumes the role of Josh. Yes, this actually happens, and no, it doesn’t make any sense at all.
Now, I’m probably being way harsh, Tai, because don’t get me wrong—for reasons I will elaborate on later, this show still made for a very fun night out. It was frustrating, however, to see something that could have been simple and great become needlessly complicated. The framing device simply wasn’t necessary, the dialogue in the scenes added for it was clunky and not very funny, the plot logistics were poorly thought out and nonsensical, and the whole thing added probably an extra 20 minutes to a show that already felt a bit on the long side. Why not just do the plot of Clueless? It’s a classic for a reason, and more than funny enough without adding in extra material. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
As with the other musical parodies I’ve seen, the song choices, most of which were from the 80s and 90s with a few more modern hits sprinkled in, were very on point. If anything, I felt like there were too many great songs—it felt a bit as if the creative team made a very long list of potential appropriate songs and couldn’t bring themselves to cut any of them. Rather than quickly switching between snippets of different songs like the show often did (although they did have a few fun and creative mash-ups), I would have preferred slightly fewer songs performed in a more complete fashion. Musical selections included “I’ll be There for You” (aka the Friends theme), “Wonderwall,” “Barbie Girl,” “Like a Virgin,” “Rolling in the Deep,” “Dancing On My Own,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” a brief excerpt of “Popular” from Wicked, “Always Be My Baby,” “Love Shack,” and a clever version of “Proud Mary” that incorporated the famous “rollin’ with the homies” bit from the movie.
The cast was very strong and belted their faces off with ease, showcasing once again the deep pool of musical theater talent in LA that Rockwell so often utilizes. Ms. Thomas was charming in the lead role, and paired nicely with Spencer Strong Smith as Josh. Emma Hunton, who played Tai, was once again a standout. This is the third time I have seen her in an LA production this year (the others were as Elphaba in the Wicked Tour and Cecile in Cruel Intentions) and she never fails to blow me away and steal the show. Her impression of Brittany Murphy’s Tai accent was so spot-on it was eerie, and her ability to belt ridiculous notes for an impressively long time garnered some of the night’s loudest applause. Corbin Reid and Chris Chatman were also fantastic as Dionne and Murray.
My criticisms aside, there was certainly no lack of talent on the stage, and it is nearly impossible to not have fun at Rockwell. If you are looking for an enjoyable night out with some first rate singing, songs everyone loves, and a few cocktails, you will not be disappointed. If you’re looking for a coherent production that adds something to the source material, however, you might be better off skipping this one.
The Unauthorized Musical Parody of Clueless runs through October 2nd with performances on select Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit Rockwell’s website.