The American high school system has spawned any number of hit musicals, from Grease and Hairspray to High School Musical and last year’s Tony winner Dear Evan Hansen, so it was only a matter of time before the iconic Tina Fey-scripted 2004 film Mean Girls became the latest title to be adapted for the Broadway stage.
Essentially a reboot of Legally Blonde, right down to the favoured pink colour scheme for one of its principal characters and even sharing that show’s lyricist Nell Benjamin, its another show about the female enfranchisement that comes from being your authentic self – but the production ironically lacks its own authentic voice.
British lead co-producer Sonia Friedman is currently bringing Hogwarts to Broadway with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. But Mean Girls is set in the altogether more mundane North Shore High School in Chicago. Rival factions battle it out for social or academic supremacy, from the ‘Plastics’ (who coalesce around their ‘Queen Bee’ Regina George) to the ‘Mathletes’, a group of maths nerds who represent the school in the state championships.
When Cady (Erika Henningsen)returns from living in Africa, she finds herself torn between the two groups, as she tries desperately to fit in and forge her own identity.
There’s not much in the way of dramatic tension, though Fey – adapting her own screenplay and retaining many of its key scenes verbatim – is helped here by the addition of jaunty, pop-inflected songs by her composer husband Jeff Richmond.
These are staged with pep and lots of urban energy by director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw. The production frequently reminded me of the work of such British dance innovators as Kate Prince and Drew McOnie. There are also some knowing costume references, including one kid wearing a Dear Evan Hansen t-shirt.
The over-active visual landscape is mostly created by video walls that keep the action moving from classrooms and cafeteria to shopping mall and home as required.
The cast of school friends and rivals – all played by actors who, though youthful looking, are all far older than the characters they are playing – is mostly more wearying than endearing, not helped by essentially having to play cliched types rather than three-dimensional people.
At least Henningsen’s Cady, the character played in the film by Lindsay Lohan, effectively transitions from vulnerable outsider to knowing insider. She carries the show’s main numbers, too, with aplomb; Taylor Louderman is monstrous and marvellous as Regina, whom Cady may or may not have literally thrown under a bus. Broadway regular Kerry Butler doubles as both her mother and wronged teacher with skilled ease.
Is the show “fetch” or “grool”, to quote two of the new words its characters seeks to coin? No, but Broadway may nevertheless welcome its easy, if generic, professionalism.