Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 8, 2018
Mean Girls Book by Tina Fey. Music by Jeff Richmond. Lyrics by Nell Benjamin. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Gregg Barnes. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Video design by Finn Ross & Adam Young. Hair design by Josh Marquette. Makeup design by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira. Orchestrations by John Clancy. Dance and incidental music arrangements by Glen Kelly. Vocal arrangements by Mary-Mitchell Campbell, Jeff Richmond, and Natalie Tenenbaum. Music coordinator Howard Joines. Associate director Casey Hushion. Associate choreographer John MacInnis. Music direction by Mary-Mitchell Campbell. Cast: Erika Henningsen, Taylor Louderman, Ashley Park, Kate Rockwell, Barrett Wilbert Weed, Grey Henson, Kerry Butler, Kyle Selig, Cheech Manohar, Rick Younger, Stephanie Lynn Bisssonnette, Tee Boyich, Collins Conley, Ben Cook, DeMarius R. Copes, Kevin Csolak, Devon Hadsell, Curtis Holland, Myles McHale, Chris Medlin, Brittany Nicholas, Becca Petersen, Nikhil Saboo, Jonalyn Saxer, Brendon Stimson, Riza Takahashi, Kamille Upshaw, Zurin Villanueva, Gianna Yanelli, and Iain Young.
Whether or not you are familiar with the 2004 teen comedy movie of the same title, with a screenplay by Tina Fey who also wrote the script for this Broadway musical adaptation, you will recognize the characters as representing the usual assortment of jocks, geeks, brainiacs, party animals, and social elites who make up the student body of North Shore High School in suburban Chicago, where, according to a prominently-displayed sign on the wall, "friendship is possible."
Possible, yes, but not guaranteed. At least, not until you figure out which of these cliques you belong to. That's the dilemma newcomer Cady (Erika Henningsen) finds herself in when she arrives at North Shore after leading a fairly isolated life with her mom and dad in Kenya, Africa (a cute and brief flashback takes its cue from The Lion King). Cady, who had been home schooled by her biologist parents, longs to fit in with her peers after the family moves back to the States. Initially, Cady is treated with icy disdain by the other students, but it isn't long before Janis (Barrett Wilbert Weed) and her "almost too gay to function" pal Damian (Grey Henson) take pity on her and agree to be her "starter companions" until she gains her footing.
Much of the first act is taken up introducing us to the characters. Damian serves as tour guide through a number called "Where Do You Belong?" in which the ensemble swirls around Cady while Damian sings about them ("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 smokin' the same oregano"). This and the rest of the mostly pumping rock/pop score was written by Jeff Richmond, who is Tina Fey's husband and composed the music for her hit TV series "30 Rock." Lyrics are by Nell Benjamin, whose résumé includes being co-writer of the score for the musical version of Legally Blonde.
"Where Do You Belong?" is a production number of the first magnitude, one of controlled mayhem in which the characters and Scott Pask's set design move in ever-shifting patterns like a kaleidoscope gone amok. Much of the visual magic here and throughout the show comes thanks to the seamless coordination between the physical set and some truly remarkable digital animation by the video design team of Finn Ross and Adam Young.
It is also during Act I that Cady falls for Aaron (Kyle Selig) the cute guy in her calculus class, and where we also get to meet her math teacher Ms. Norbury (Kerry Butler in one of three roles in which she excels), made up as a Tina Fey look-alike playing the calc maven that Ms. Fey portrayed in the movie.
All will unfold as it must in Act II, the much stronger half of the evening. Plots are hatched, revenge comes slinking in like a rattlesnake, and Cady succumbs to the lure of the superficial, despite Damian's warning (in another winning number called "Stop") that "our prefrontal cortex isn't fully formed until we're twenty-five." But don't worry too much. Tina Fey is not one to go all "Carrie" with her characters. Even when Cady opens her house to a free-for-all party when her parents are away, the worst thing that happens is, as Gretchen puts it, "someone not me barfed in your oven."
At its heart, Mean Girls is a fairly gentle poke at the lives of reasonably decent high school kids, even with respect to Regina and The Plastics, all of whom change for the better by the night of the Spring Fling dance. Ms. Fey truly has more important fish to fry, with well-placed messages of self-respect, positive girl power, and anti-bullying, along with one well-timed dig she can't stop herself from aiming at the current U. S. President. Unless you count the accident that leaves Regina dead for all of 15 seconds, no harm is done to anyone. What makes this all work is less the easygoing plot than the strong performances by the young cast, especially Erika Henningsen as Cady, Taylor Louderman as Regina, Barrett Wilbert Weed as Janis, and Grey Henson as the kind-hearted Damian, clutching his photo of his dreamboat singer George Michael. They and the entire company fill every minute of Mean Girls with boundless talent and energy under Casey Nicholaw's fast-paced and imaginative direction and choreography.