Tina Fey Brings the Musical Comedy Back to Broadway in Mean Girls
Fey's 2004 film gets a 2018 update at the August Wilson Theatre.
There aren't many laughs on Broadway this season. In fact, it's been an unusually dour year when it comes to musical theater. Thank heavens, then, for Tina Fey's Mean Girls at the August Wilson Theatre. Given a production by Casey Nicholaw that seems devoted to covering up its limitations, Mean Girls, with a book by Fey, music by Jeff Richmond, and lyrics by Nell Benjamin, still manages to reintroduce a crucial element back into the ecosystem of the Great White Way: laughter.
Based on Fey's 2004 film (which itself was inspired by Rosalind Weissman's 2002 self-help book Queen Bees and Wannabes), Mean Girls takes place in perhaps the world's most insidious jungle: high school. After her parents' research funding runs out, Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen, an absolutely endearing leading lady) moves back to Illinois from Kenya, where she was raised among the animals, and must assimilate herself into a vicious landscape unlike anything she experienced on the Serengeti.
Befriended by local outcasts Janis and Damian (Barrett Wilbert Weed and Grey Henson, both letter-perfect), Cady also finds herself in the thrall of the Plastics, the school's most infamous clique. Regina George (Taylor Louderman, deliciously Mephistophelian) circles her like fresh meat to take advantage of, just as she did to her sidekicks, the piteously anxious Gretchen Wieners (Ashley Park) and painfully dim Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell). Cady infiltrates the group as a way for Janis to get revenge on Regina for a past slight. But when Regina works her evil magic on Cady's potential beau Aaron (Kyle Selig, playing the nice guy to a T), Cady decides to enact revenge of her own.
Fey is keenly aware of what the target audience for a stage Mean Girls is, and this property is as faithful an adaptation of the film as fans could hope for. Those lines that everybody of a certain age knows — "fetch," "grool," "you go, Glen Coco" — are all there, and Fey has even added a handful of jokes for the stage that are funnier than anything on-screen.
Admittedly, there are rookie structural problems. Some characters seem to fade too often into the background (the production sorely misuses Kerry Butler, who nonetheless shines in the three minuscule roles originated on celluloid by Fey, Amy Poehler, and Ana Gasteyer), while others are given the wrong material (Janis receives the belty eleven-o'clock number, which Weed sells to the rafters, but that moment should really belong to Cady). Similarly, certain plot points that work well cinematically, for instance, a climactic bus accident, don't translate well to this particular medium.
What Fey has done is create a script that speaks louder to the dangerous world of contemporary teenage-hood than even the film did. Mean Girls has always been about the power struggles within dysfunctional friendships, and in shifting the time period to 2018, Fey expands the story to examine how social media exacerbates this volatility. Speaking in very contemporary lingo, Mean Girls manages to go thematically deeper than it did as a film, and it provides a lot for the parents in the audience to think about.
The music, however, doesn't always make a strong case for its own existence. Richmond and Benjamin have crafted only two big showstoppers, both of which are deservedly given to Henson's plucky Damian, and the only great character-defining songs are given to Gretchen and Karen (with any luck, these will be Park and Rockwell's breakout roles). The rest of Richmond's score bears some resemblance to his jaunty 30 Rock underscoring, and Benjamin's lyrics have a tendency to be more generic than specific to the situations at hand.
Nicholaw's vigorous production tries to mask the flaws with his usual "more is more" style. The entire staging is on wheels, literally and figuratively, constantly in motion but not really propelling the action forward. His choreography is buoyant, but repetitive, as if he watched the same breakdance video over and over as inspiration.
Kenneth Posner's lighting accentuates the stage in neons (this show wears pink every day, not just Wednesdays), while Gregg Barnes's costumes are exactly what you'd likely see if you were on safari in an extremely wealthy suburban high school. Scott Pask's set is minimal, with a few rolling flats, but most of the work is done by a wall of massive LED screens that serve as a conduit for video backdrops by Finn Ross and Adam Young. Sensory overload? Sometimes. But the graphics are as funny as Fey's script, and obviously created with her assistance.
Mean Girls isn't flawless. There are times when one wishes it were just a straight play. But imperfections aside, we must be very thankful for the comedic genius behind the script. Tina Fey has brought the musical comedy back to Broadway, and it couldn't have happened at a more necessary time.