Adapting a beloved movie for the stage is no simple task. There are those that have succeeded—Legally Blonde, Once, Bring it On. There are many more that have failed—Catch Me If You Can, Ghost, High Fidelity. Mean Girls opened on Broadway last month to mixed reviews and 12 Tony nominations, at least partially thanks to an undersaturated season for new musicals, and unfortunately, it falls a bit more in the latter camp. To make matters worse, many of its story problems seem fixable, but remain issues even after significant revisions following last year’s pre-Broadway run in DC.
With a book by Tina Fey, lyrics by Nell Benjamin, and music by Jeff Richmond, the plot of Mean Girls the musical stays true to the source material—its in the chosen focus that things go astray. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, the first odd choice is making Janis (Barrett Wilbert Weed) and Damian (Grey Henson) narrators of sorts, presenting the story at the top and popping in a couple times throughout to steer the action. Considering how sparingly it is used, this framing device is perplexing and unnecessary, and while Janis and Damian are great characters and well-written and performed here, it is a strong choice to put so much focus on them right out of the gate.
In all of the promotional materials for the musical, the focus is solely on the Plastics. Both the playbill and the key art feature Regina (Taylor Louderman), Gretchen (Ashley Park), and Karen (Kate Rockwell). Additionally, about a week before I saw the show, the Tony committee declared that both Louderman and Erika Henningsen, who plays Cady, would be eligible in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category, a nomination only Louderman went on to earn. There is certainly a version of Mean Girls where Cady and Regina are the co-leads, but that is not the version of the show currently on stage in New York. Instead, both Gretchen and Karen get solos before Regina. A song that comes midway through act one called “Apex Predator” is sung by Janis and Cady, and consists of Janis explaining Regina’s reign over the school. But, just two songs prior we already learned this in “Meet the Plastics.” Rather than waiting until act two for Regina to truly get a big, memorable number (“World Burn” is among the better moments of the show, when it finally happens), “Apex Predator” would be better off replaced by a Regina-sung song to introduce her to the audience from her point of view. Instead, Regina struts around in slow motion, more mythical beast than character. Key moments from early in the film that showed the depths of Regina’s cruelty, such as her prank call from Planned Parenthood, are missing here, and instead most word of her antics come secondhand.
Henningsen’s portrayal of Cady was one of my favorite things about the production. She exudes star quality and is every bit as sunny-eyed and endearing as pre-disaster Lindsay Lohan once was, and she has tons of material to play with here. The only flaw is in the pacing of Cady’s character arc, which is weighted too heavily at the beginning and end, glossing over her actual “mean girl” phase a bit too quickly. Aaron Samuels (Kyle Selig), however, is bafflingly a total non-character here. He never gets his own moment in the spotlight, and a subplot about him not actually living in the school district is thrown in in an attempt to give Cady a more concrete way to hurt him via the Burn Book, but ultimately adds nothing. And Kerry Butler, a longtime fan-favorite Broadway actress who plays Ms. Norbury, Mrs. George, and Mrs. Heron, is criminally underused, to the point where anyone who knows what she is capable of will want to rescue her from this show immediately.
Ultimately, the biggest and least fixable problem Mean Girls has is that the score is, sadly, forgettable. Prior to seeing the show, I found it a bit strange that Janis’s act two number “I’d Rather Be Me” was the number of choice for all of the promotional TV performances until I realized it’s the only memorable song. While I suspect some of the other songs may become more endearing upon multiple listens, that is hardly the desired effect. In terms of iconic moments from the movie, the ones you want are mostly there—”she doesn’t even go here,” “I’m a cool mom,” “on Wednesdays we wear pink,” “you go, Glen Coco!” But the writers did not properly capitalize on taking those fan-favorite moments and turning them into songs and scenes. For example, Legally Blonde created a catchy, well-choreographed musical number based on the Bend & Snap. Much about this adaptation has the scent of trying too hard to be different and original, as opposed to leaning in to what was already working. Cady sings a song in act two about how “more is always better,” and it feels suspiciously like the creative team’s mission statement.
All of that being said, when it came time for the final scenes, the overall spirit of the movie felt intact. What is lacking in the score and lyrics is somewhat made up for in Fey’s book, which seamlessly moves the story into the modern era of technology and social media. At one point, Gretchen bemoans, “sometimes I feel like an iPhone without a case. Like, I know I’m worth a lot, and I have a lot of good functions, but at any time I could just shatter.” Regina mentions that the President blocked her on Twitter, and Karen, the character who feels the most realized in terms of taking what existed in the movie and expanding upon it, tells a story about not cropping her head out of a nude photo and a boy sharing it with his friends. “Now I only get naked with people in person! Also someone should teach boys not to do that in the first place,” she says, in one of the most prescient-feeling lines. Much of the choreography is also very enjoyable, particularly a few bits incorporating cafeteria trays.
Here’s the difficult thing about adapting a movie so many people can quote backwards and forwards—some level of disappointment is perhaps inevitable. There is still much to enjoy in Mean Girls, particularly in the performances of the truly all-star cast, every single one of whom is giving it their all, regardless of what they have been given to work with. Interestingly, the crowd seemed to be mostly comprised of teen girls who probably weren’t even alive when the movie came out, accompanied by their moms. Regardless of how fetch it may or may not be, it seems poised for a grool commercial run.
Mean Girls is currently playing at the August Wilson Theatre in New York. A national tour will begin in fall 2019. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.