Clueless Musical Lives Up to Its Title
Dove Cameron stars in Amy Heckerling's new stage adaptation of her beloved film.
Is the new musical version of Clueless any good? As if.
Written by the film's original screenwriter and director Amy Heckerling, Clueless is the latest movie-turned-musical that falls into the "Why does this exist?" category. Heckerling, who penned the book, as well as new lyrics to the beloved 1990s pop songs like "Torn" and "Bye Bye Bye" that make up her score, doesn't have an answer. Neither does director Kristin Hanggi (Rock of Ages), whose staging is thoroughly lazy on every level and dumbfounding in its amateurishness. If you didn't know that a venerable company like the New Group was presenting this show, you'd, like, totally think you were at a local high school production.
Clueless is a seminal movie for Gen Y-ers, eminently quotable and responsible for introducing the Valley Girl trope into 1990s pop culture (it also made stars out of Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd). Loosely inspired by Jane Austen's Emma, the teen comedy follows the adventures of Cher Horowitz (Dove Cameron), a superficial rich girl from Beverly Hills for whom popularity is everything.
After coaxing two harsh teachers (Chris Hoch and Megan Sikora) into a relationship, Cher and her BFF Dionne (Zurin Villanueva) give a makeover to the tragically unhip Tai (Ephie Aardema), whose status eventually eclipses Cher's. It's only then, and after a slate of failed boyfriends, that Cher realizes her own loneliness can be alleviated if she's willing to give more of a thought to her ex-stepbrother, Josh (Dave Thomas Brown).
In bringing Clueless to the stage, Heckerling falls into the same traps that many first-time theater writers encounter when they're adapting their own material for a completely different medium. More-or-less slavishly faithful to the movie (even though she cut most of the iconic quotes), Heckerling hasn't figured out what makes these characters sing, why they need to, or how to restructure an episodic screen story to fit the demands of the stage. The whole thing is messy from top to bottom, made worse by the lack of an original score.
That's not to say that every musical needs one. The recent Cruel Intentions (also adapted from a '90s movie) went a similar route in casting '90s hits to fill out its jukebox score, but that show kept the songs as they were written, adding to the situational silliness of the experience. (For instance, Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me" accentuated a moment of seduction between two characters.) Here, Heckerling goes an extra step to rewrite lyrics to shoehorn her plot, but instead of coming off as funny, it ends up being a train wreck. "You're all crazy — He is / Such a guy! / Is he bi, bi, bi?," they sing when Cher discovers that her Runyon-esque potential boyfriend Christian (Justin Mortelliti) swings the other way.
The flaws of the writing might have been a little less damning if the surrounding production was truly incredible, but the cheapness of Clueless, the Musical extends to Amy Clark's costumes, which trade the big-budget haute couture of the film for Old Navy knockoffs, and Beowulf Borritt's flimsy-looking set, which threatens to fall down whenever someone opens a door. It also doesn't help if your fake car has only two seats, but four passengers, which makes for a lot of standing and leaning over.
Hanggi's cast is game but unexciting — Aardema parrots Brittany Murphy's accent, but not much else, Villanueva fades into the background, and Sikora, one of Broadway's great dancers, is thoroughly wasted in the extremely minimal adult female roles. Hock finds humor as all the adult men, and Brown is suitably handsome as the Paul Rudd stand-in. But Cameron, an Emmy-winning Disney Channel diva, has the heaviest lifting, and boy does she work hard. Still, she's too green to fully make the role her own, and therefore can't banish the memories of Alicia Silverstone.
The ensemble dances Kelly Devine's grody choreography with their blood, sweat, and tears, but no one onstage can authentically capture the period milieu that made the movie so fresh. Then again, no one can seem to catch the lightning in a bottle that was the movie, not even Heckerling herself. This show just doesn't have a clue.