The first thing you see when you walk into the August Wilson Theatre and take your seat for Mean Girls, the musical based on the high school screen comedy written by Tina Fey and directed by Mark Waters, is a smorgasbord of insults: “Basic AF”; “You could live off the food in his braces”; “0 Likes, 0 Followers”; “If corn flakes were a person”; “Literally no one!!” These missives and more are scrawled across images of smiling teenagers, projected against the back wall of the stage — invectives, updated for the social media age, that fans of the film will recognize from its infamous “burn book,” in which the three most popular girls at the fictional North Shore High School annotate their classmates’ most humiliating attributes.
This introduction gave me false hope that Mean Girls would likewise be a refreshed reworking of the movie, which has attained cult status since its release in 2004. If you simply want to relive the glory of the film via the splendor of a Broadway theater, with a coterie of top-notch performers, then have at it; you’ll have a great time. But if you’re hoping for an imaginative stage adaptation of a beloved comedy, well, Groundhog Day has already closed.
There’s not a whole lot of adaptation to speak of in Mean Girls, which culls a good portion of its dialogue straight from the movie (Fey wrote the book) and offers little in the way of production design. The story, too, varies only slightly from its source material: It centers on Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen), a sixteen-year-old whose zoologist parents uproot her from Africa, where she’s grown up, and plop her down in an all-American high school in Evanston, Illinois. There, she befriends outcast besties Damian and Janis (Grey Henson and Barrett Wilbert Weed), who urge her to infiltrate the Plastics — a trio of scary hot girls led by queen bee Regina George (Taylor Louderman), who’s trailed by lackeys Gretchen Wieners (Ashley Park) and Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell).
Much of this lends itself naturally to the stage. Regina and Damian, in particular, are inherently theatrical characters; as Regina, Louderman stalks the stage like Madonna, allowing lowlier students to carry her high in the air during her numbers. Louderman is an absolutely magnetic presence, a perfect choice for a character who needs the world to revolve around her. And the show’s first act features some inventive staging: In an early scene, the ensemble sits in rows of school desks equipped with wheels, which enable them to simply rotate, as a group, ninety degrees this way or that to indicate a different classroom. (The direction and choreography are by Casey Nicholaw.)
Overall, though, most of these scenes somehow looked more dynamic in the film than they do as rendered by an energetic troupe of Broadway hoofers. So much of Mean Girls feels like a slightly lamer version of the movie, not least of all Cady herself, who in the musical is flattened into a milquetoast ingénue type, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and completely devoid of personality. When the performers break into an animalistic fervor, hammering home the show’s metaphor of high-school-as-jungle, it looks fine — but the feeding frenzy was more sharply choreographed in the film.
It’s hard to decide which is more disappointing: the utterly forgettable music, by 30 Rock composer (and Fey’s husband) Jeff Richmond, or the near-total lack of set design from the usually innovative Scott Pask. The set consists largely of a curved wall upstage onto which different backgrounds are digitally projected to indicate locations: the cafeteria, the mall, the school’s exterior. This is all very functional and realistic-looking, but is that really what you want out of a Broadway production?
The best moments are those that take a kernel from the movie and magnify it. The most memorable number is “Sexy,” in which Karen extolls the skin-exposing opportunities that Halloween affords — a routine that fleshes out the film’s now-ubiquitous observation that the holiday has devolved into an excuse to wear glorified lingerie in the guise of a “costume.” “I can be a sexy doctor / and cure some sexy cancer,” the hilarious Rockwell sings, as a “sexy Rosa Parks” dances around her.
Unfortunately, such triumphs are few and far between. By the second act, Mean Girls feels like it’s rushing through the movie’s plot points and catchphrases, the latter of which pile up progressively throughout the show; after a while, it feels like karaoke, but for jokes. Of course, the audience cheered for many of these familiar lines (“She doesn’t even go here!”). I’m glad they had fun. But as the musical dragged on, I found myself wishing it were weirder, riskier — more willing to try something new rather than phone it in, knowing that audiences will flock no matter how formulaic and lazy an adaptation this is. Put that in your burn book.