Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Mean Girls was adapted by Tina Fey from her screenplay for the 2004 hit movie of the same name, retaining most of the characters and plot lines. Fey's book is funny throughout, while tapping into the social strata of contemporary high schools. With music by Jeff Richmond (Fey's husband) and lyrics by Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde), the score has not produced any songs that would be considered memorable, but the musical numbers advance the story and transform plot points into extravagant statements that underscore their themes. A couple of quieter songs allow characters to reveal the fears and confusion they try so hard to mask.
Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw uses a high-tech physical production to keep this story gliding forward before taking a breath, and his joyous choreography gives this student body a chance to express the chaos in their lives, with chutzpah enough to use rolling cafeteria tables and red lunch trays to create Busby Berkley-like routines. It adds up to a whole that is entertaining from first note to last, with humor that is barbed but tempered with genuine affection.
Who are these mean girls, you may ask? For twelve years, Cady Heron has lived with her scientist parents in Kenya, where she loves the land, the wild creatures, and the starry nights. Now, at the age of sixteen, Cady returns to the United Stated where she is a junior at a high school in a tony Chicago suburb. She is thrown into culture shock by the masses of students and their customs, cliques and colloquialisms. Ironically, North Shore's mascot is a lion; in Kenya, Cady felt at home among real lions, but she is not prepared for life among the wild beasts who are her classmates.
Two other outsider students appoint themselves to befriend Cady: Janis, an art geek; and Damian, who is jovially openly gay. They orient Cady to the array of social groups staking out tables in the school cafeteriajocks, drama kids, druggies, mathletes, and the Plastics, who are to be avoided. The Plastics are led by ice-princess Regina George, who singlehandedly controls the social web that runs through the entire school. Regina decides to take Cady on as a project for the Plastics, intending to transform the naive newbie into another of her acolytes, joining the desperate-for-approval Gretchen and dim-witted Karen.
Janis was badly burned by Regina in the past, so she goads Cady to accept Regina's offer (coming from Regina, it is more like a command) and learn all about the inner workings of the Plastics. For Cady, the line between pretending to be one of the Plastics and actually becoming one of them becomes blurred, and when she falls hard for Regina's ex-boyfriend, matters become very complicated, running through the school year straight up to a fateful resolution at the Spring Fling dance. An overwhelmed school principal, sympathetic calculus teacher, and Regina's vacuous, boozy mother who brands herself "the cool mom" are the main adult characters, which pretty much leaves it up to the teens to sort things out.
If it sounds like a lot of petty high school shenanigans driven to high drama by adolescent insecurities and hormones, well, it is, but no less true to reality for that. Except for Regina, all of the characters draw our sympathy in one way or other. Even the two Plastics who follow her lead, Gretchen and Karen, are not truly mean; their own emotional needs keep them in Regina's grip. Cady makes some bad choices along the way, but from the beginning we are on her side as the outsider who is trying her best to make sense of the very difficult terrain of high school lifechallenging enough for one who enters it gradually, coming up through the grades, but an utter mystery to Cady, having been homeschooled and sequestered in Africa for all those years. So, we forgive Cady's trespasses, while holding on to hope that in the end the light will shine on her. And we have reason to hopethis is a musical, remember?
The folks in casting did a swell job of finding actors to portray these teenagers, loaded with talent in the song, dance, and comedy departments. Danielle Wade wins us over as Cady, expressing tenderness right off the bat as she sings about her charmed life in Kenya ("It Roars"), earning sympathy for her fears upon her arriving at the wilds of North Shore High and confessing that she is "Stupid in Love," and then worrying us as she slides down a slippery slope as she infiltrates the Plastics. Wade has a full singing voice that does justice to all of her musical numbers, and she creates a moving portrait of confused values wresting in the teenage mind in "More is Better."
As Cady's nemesis Regina, Mariah Rose Faith gives a convincing performance of the power-mad queen bee of the Plastics, heartily belting out such songs as "Someone Gets Hurt," and "World Burn," both power tunes in keeping with her character's nature. Megan Masako Haley gives the most moving performance as Gretchen, who is so dependent on approval that she blindly follows Regina, or anyone else who gives her attention, down dark paths. She has a lovely voice and her performance of "What's Wrong With Me?" is truly touching. Jonalyn Saxer plays Karen, the ultimate dumb blonde, and manages to make the character tolerable with swell physical comedy and a winking attitude toward the role, as when she describes the value of being "Sexy."
The strongest singer of all is Mary Kate Morrissey, who plays Janis and effectively conveys her desire to, at last, get back at the childhood friend who betrayed her while trying to show the world that she is proud of her outsider status. She especially fires on all cylinders on "Apex Predator" and "I'd Rather Be Me." Eric Huffman is the production's ace overall showman as Damien, with twinkling eyes, pleasing voice, great delivery of his very funny lines, and mastery of song and dance, delighting the audience with "Where Do You Belong?" and a wonderfully joyful tap number, "Stop." Adante Carter is not given as much to do as Aaron, object of Cady's crush, but has an appealing presence and sings pleasantly. Kabir Bery is a convincing and amusing math nerd, and Gaelen Gilliland wins props as both a teacher who understands the nature of the beasts she deals with, and as Regina's pathetic mother. As for the ensemble, the caliber of singing and dancing on stage would win North Shore high a division trophy.
The sets, costumes, lights and sound for the tour are all based on the original Broadway production. The sets (Scott Pask) look great, work with swift efficiency to move from African savannah to a high-end high school cafeteria to Regina's enormous, plush bedroom ("It used to be my parents', but I made them switch with me") to Cady's humble, homey room. Humor infects every aspect of the sets, toodon't miss the names of the shops lining the mall where the Plastics do their power shopping. Video projections (Finn Ross and Adam Young) and lighting (Kenneth Posner) work in tandem to create brilliant splashes of color, dissolves from the cafeteria to a locker-lined corridor, the out-of-control mayhem of an unsupervised teen party, and the monster nightmares of the Apex Predator. Gregg Barnes' costume designs have a firm fix on each of the social cliques at North Shore High, with the Plastics dressing a level or two above even the chicest actual high school studentsto comic effect.
Mean Girls was one of the big hits of the 2018-2019 Broadway season, with little sign of closing yet. It is the powerful blending of score, book, performance and design, driven by strong direction and choreography, thatwhen it succeeds, as it does hereproduces joy that trumpets forth and is the essence of musical comedy. While not of such high caliber as to become a classic, Mean Girls, here and now, is a winning entertainment that is smart, insightful, andin spite of the cruel plotting and deceptionsfull of heart.
Mean Girls runs through October 13, 2019, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $40.00 - $150.00. For information, including availability of student and educator rush tickets, call 800-982-2787 or visit hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit meangirlsonbroadway.com.
Book: Tina Fey, based on the Paramount Pictures film; Music: Jeff Richmond; Lyrics: Nell Benjamin; Director and Choreographer: Casey Nicholaw; Set Design: Scott Pask; Costume Design: Gregg Barnes; Lighting Design: Kenneth Posner; Sound Design: Brian Ronan; Video Design: Finn Ross and Adam Young; Hair Design: Josh Marquette; Makeup Design: Milagros Medina-Cardeira; Orchestrations: John Clancy: Dance and Incidental Music Arrangements: Glen Kelly; Vocal Arrangements: Mary-Mitchell Campbell, Jeff Richmond, and Natalie Tenenbaum; Musical Director: Rebekah Bruce Parker; Casting: Telsey + Company, Bethany Knox, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Peyton Taylor Becker; Music Coordinator: Howard Joines; Music Supervision: Mary-Mitchell Campbell; Associate Director: Casey Hushion; Associate Choreographer: John MacInnis.
Cast: Kabir Bery (Kevin Gnapoor), Will Branner (Mr. Heron/Coach Carr/Mathletes Moderator), Adante Carter (Aaron Samuels), Mariah Rose Faith (Regina George), Sky Flaherty (Tyler Kimble), Gaelen Gilliland (Mrs. Heron/Ms. Norbury/Mrs. George), Megan Masako Haley (Gretchen Wieners), Fernell Hogan II (Martin Jitla), Eric Huffman (Damian Hubbard), Mary Kate Morrissey (Janis Sarkisian), Jonalyn Saxer (Karen Smith), Lawrence E. Street (Mr. Duvall), Danielle Wade (Cady Heron).
Ensemble: Deshawn Bowens, Will Branner, Morgan Ashley Bryant, Sarah Crane, Mary Beth Donahoe, Niani Feelings, Sky Flaherty, Fernell Hogan II, Asia Marie Kreitz, Olivia Renteria, Sydney Mei Ruf-Wong, Kaitlyn Louise Smith, David Wright Jr., Blake Zelesnikar.