By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Tina Fey’s success as a screenwriter for the film “Mean Girls” was supported by her husband Jeff Richmond’s music. So, when the thought of turning it into a musical began to be discussed, there was little doubt he would provide the musical links that would advance his wife’s book. With lyrics by Neil Benjamin, Mean Girls is a lot better than those above high school or college age might think.
From the opening number “A Cautionary Tale,” sung by Damian Hubbard (Eric Huffman), a proudly out gay male upperclassman, and his female goth counterpart, Jane Sarkisian (Mary Kate Morrissey), there is a clearly-defined pecking order spelled out at North Shore High School. As soon as they welcome a transfer student from Kenya, Cady Heron (English Bernhardt), they explain the process by which kids hang with each other in “Where Do You Belong?”
As Cady has been homeschooled by her researcher parents, she has had no previous social interaction with these kinds of groups, but she can find some commonality with the animal kingdoms of the African savannas with the song”Apex Predator.”
Paramount among all the groups that rule the high school domain are the beautiful people known by Damian and Jane as the Plastics and introduced in the song “Meet the Plastics.” Chief among them is Regina George (Olivia Renteria or Becca Petersen), a girl of impeccable beauty and class, whose modus operandi is to put down and belittle anyone who would stand up to her. The remaining members of The Plastics are Gretchen Weiners and Karen Smith, two sycophants who are kept off balance by Regina’s wily ways. They each take their turn in expressing their inadequacies and lack of self-confidence: Gretchen with “What’s Wrong with Me?” and Karen with her answer to everything in life, “Sexy.”
Surprisingly, due to her comeliness and charm, Cady is accepted by the Plastics, but unknown to them, she has an ulterior mission to fulfill, to wit, bring down the rule of the Plastics. Cady is at first befriended by the Plastics as Regina shows her the “Burn Book,” a notebook of gossip, innuendo and lies she has spun. Soon after she expresses interest in Regina’s ex-boyfriend, football jock Aaron Samuels (Adante Carter), she is shocked to find Regina actively courting him again and stealing him away from her. Thus, the seed for ultimate revenge begins at North Shore High and a plot to take down Regina and replace her as the apex predator of the Plastics is hatched in Cady’s mind.
Act I finds Cady’s plan working well in “Revenge Party,” with Janis and Damian and the ensemble. Eventually, Cady is deemed “Fearless” by her fellow Plastics, as Regina’s world spins out of control and the Kalteen bars recommended by Cady to help her lose weight are, in fact, calorically dense and put lots of fat on her derriere. Unable to fit properly in her clothes, she violates a club rule by wearing sweat pants to school and is summarily dismissed by Cady and the other Plastics.
Act II begins with a full tap dance break in “Stop,” with Damian and Karen doing a wonderful job in leading the ensemble to the choreography of Tony Award winning director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon). Nicholaw, who was nominated for several other noteworthy shows such as The Drowsy Chaperone and Something Rotten! has enjoyed an amazing track record of memorable dancing and movement and Mean Girls is another well-done work.
The inevitable comeuppance for both Regina and Cady comes in Act II. When the other Plastics invite what seems the entire school to party hardy at Cady’s home while her folks are away (“Whose House Is This?”), her scheming ways are made clear to Janis and Damian. Later, Regina writes a horrible screed about herself in the “Burn Book” and turns it in to the school principal, claiming to have “found” it in the girls’ bathroom, attempting to shift the blame away from her and point it instead toward Cady.
With so many different dynamics at play, the resolution of Mean Girls reveals a combination of bad karma and life lessons learned before its conclusion. For those who stick with it, there is an attractive bow that ties everything together, which might be the biggest failing with Fey’s book. High school has never been that neatly arranged, but for the sake of having a relatively happy ending, Mean Girls supplies some unlikely end scenes.
Richmond’s music is quite good and effectively played by the orchestra led by music director and conductor Benedict Braxton-Smith with some local musicians adding support. Howard Jones serves as music coordinator, while John Clancy is credited with the majority of the orchestrations while some dance and incidental music arrangements are credited to Glen Kelly.
The national tour of Mean Girls, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, ran at the Saenger Theater, 1111 Canal Street, in New Orleans from Tue., May 17 through Sun., May 22.