theater review

On Wednesdays, We Do Two Shows: Mean Girls Self-Awarely Stages Itself

Less than two minutes into the smart, splashy new musical of Tina Fey’s 2004 teen comedy Mean Girls, my friend leaned over and whispered delightedly, “This is the most postmodern thing I’ve ever seen!” Okay, so she’s got a master’s in dramaturgy, but also, she’s not wrong. Mean Girls — with a clever book that’s unmistakably by Fey, music by her husband Jeff Richmond, and lyrics by Nell Benjamin — isn’t just a fun, and very funny, show: It’s continuously, mischievously self-aware. As is becoming the happy standard for intelligent musical adaptations of confidently comical material, the show is in a kind of winking, breathlessly referential conversation not only with the movie that spawned it but with the genre into which it’s being adapted, and with the current moment of its re-creation, a 2018 that often feels barely advanced beyond the lava-hot emotional messes and machinations of high school.

Mean Girls the movie, a playful send-up of teenage backstabbery, was Fey’s first screenplay, and in the decade-plus since its premiere it’s become a pop phenomenon. Its catchphrases are infinitely quotable (these days, meme-able), and its characters, as with any good satire, are both outsized and recognizably real. Fey and director Mark Waters were inspired by Queen Bees and Wannabes, Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 nonfiction book on teenage girls and the pressure of social cliques, and for the film’s plot Fey drew on elements from her own high-school experience. The movie was a career launcher for several of its stars, including Rachel McAdams as the reigning Queen of Mean, Regina George, and Lindsay Lohan as the hero, Cady Heron, a smart but suggestible transfer student who infiltrates Regina’s clique only to fall for the poisonous temptations of popularity.

So the musical has its share of beloved moments to live up to. And it delivers — partly by approaching its material with immense energy and a wicked sense of humor, and partly by diving headlong into joyful inside-jokery. First, we get a fourth-wall-breaking frame: “Welcome to high school!” we’re told by two students at a microphone as the play begins. We’re the incoming freshmen, and these worldly wise seniors are here to teach us a lesson. “We’re gonna tell you the story of our friend Cady,” says one — a tall, expressive boy whose prodigious aura reads I know the whole “Music and the Mirror” dance solo by heart. He goes on: “… How she moved here from Kenya and how her dodgy decisions caused another girl to get hit by a bus!” He pauses for dramatic effect, then, with a flourish: “Actions … and consequences.”

This is Damien Hubbard, the fantastic Grey Henson, sipping tea, throwing shade, sashaying, and slaying in an endlessly entertaining performance. His counterpart is the punky, disaffected art nerd, Janis Sarkisian (picture Jane Lane with Bushwick-in-2018 hair). As Janis, the dryly funny Barrett Wilbert Weed has a challenge: Her character doesn’t exactly scream Theatah, dahling! the way Damien’s does. She tends to keep her feelings under her ripped up, paint-speckled camo jacket, not out there in the spotlight set to a soaring tune, as tradition demands of us when we’re characters in musicals. When Janis sings, she’s got to do it with an “All right, I guess” shrug instead of her BFF’s jazz-handed abandon. But it works, and Wilbert Weed has a powerful voice, a droll sense of humor, and a good handle on Janis’s fierce instinct for loyalty. Even in the less flashy role, she’s a match for Henson’s Damien, and together the pair are the heart of the show.

They’ll be our Virgils through the social hellscape that is high school in suburban America (who better than the nerds to narrate a musical?). Their witty opening number, “A Cautionary Tale,” introduces us to the story’s themes — “Fear and lust and pride! … Corruption and betrayal! … And getting hit by a bus!” — and to its heroine, the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Cady. When we meet her, Cady is living in Kenya with her biologist parents, collecting fecal samples, ear-tagging lions, being homeschooled and dreaming of one day making “some human friends.” Director Casey Nicholaw (known and Tony’d for The Book of Mormon and Disney’s Aladdin, among other high-energy extravaganzas) keeps the action moving at the speed of gossip (with the assist of Scott Pask’s flexible set, which is essentially a canvas for Finn Ross and Adam Young’s Snapchat-fast video design), and so Cady’s buoyant introductory song, “It Roars,” rolls right out of “A Cautionary Tale,” along with a hilarious sequence that lovingly parodies that pride of Broadway The Lion King. In it, the ensemble stalks and flutters across the stage in various animal guises, witty send-ups by costume designer Gregg Barnes of Julie Taymor’s famous puppet-costume-hybrids, here constructed of scraps — feather dusters and yellow caution tape — like, say, a budget-conscious high-school theater department trying to put on the Disney behemoth.

It all goes by in a flash — that’s true of much of Mean Girls; don’t look away or you’ll miss something — but it’s both a delicious musical in-joke and a clever means of setting up the show’s central metaphor: high school as ferocious food chain. Even once the play’s action moves to the halls of North Shore High School in some Chicago suburb, the savannah physicalities, the squawks and roars, will resurface in the ensemble throughout the show as characters continue to flee predators, mark territory, and establish dominance.

As Cady, the new girl trying to figure out where she fits around the watering hole, Erika Henningsen is full of spirited charm. Her journey from enthusiastic, guileless brainiac to confused, corrupted popular girl — and finally, of course, back to brainiac, chastened and matured — is a sympathetic and beautifully sung one. The stage affords Cady’s character more immediate access to us: She can look across the footlights in moments of moral confusion and puzzle things out in little spotlit asides. In her eagerness to make friends, entice a cute boy, and —- like pretty much every musical-theater hero ever — find where she belongs, she almost always makes the wrong choice, but hearing her voice her struggle increases our empathy. And, after all, as Damien and Janis ask us in the show’s opening, “How far would you go / To be popular and hot? / Would you resist temptation? / No, you would not!”

That temptation comes in the form of the Plastics, the reigning clique at North Shore. “Don’t look at them!” Damien warns Cady when we first witness Regina, making a grand entrance atop a gliding cafeteria table, girded by her faithful followers, the insecure Gretchen Wieners and the vacant Karen Smith, frozen in a worshipful tableau like some kind of selfie-taking neoclassical statue. Damien and Janis, who have taken the vulnerable new kid Cady under their wing, have just finished educating her on the school’s various cliques when the Plastics make their appearance. That number, the flamboyant “Where Do You Belong?”, is a showcase for Henson. Richmond, who has served as musical director for SNL and Chicago’s Second City, has a parodist’s sense for genre tropes, and here he gives Damien the gift of one of those quintessential “Stick with me, kid!” Broadway teaching songs — like Gypsy’s “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” or “Consider Yourself” from Oliver!. Nicholaw, who also choreographed the show, throws some cafeteria-tray foley at the inexhaustible ensemble for Damien’s tap solo. And the winks just keep on coming: “Back me up, Show Choir!” Damien shouts at one point, and suddenly the cast is full on Fosse-ing behind him, having ripped open their jackets or button-downs to reveal Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen T-shirts. It’s grown-up musical-theater kids playing musical-theater kids.

Soon, Cady is involved in a dangerous game with the Plastics who, breaking from their traditional exclusivity, invite her to sit with them at lunch. “Take their offer,” says Janis, who’s nursing a personal grudge against Regina, “And then come back and tell us every stupid moron thing they said.” And so begins the corruption of Cady, who quickly goes from hesitant spy to starry-eyed sycophant to savage social predator. That ascension is marked in “Revenge Party,” a key example of Mean Girls’ unfaltering ability to thread dramatic action into its music, breaking up a song’s flow with spoken plot and yet still emerging with a satisfying showstopper.

Soon enough, Regina has been dethroned in a humiliating escapade involving a wardrobe malfunction during the Christmas talent show: “This is probably a good time for us to talk about the power of Social Media,” Janis notes dryly in a smart update to 2018, as projected tweets and memes involving Regina’s exposed butt fill the back wall of the set. Cady, her socks and sandals and homemade bracelets traded for heels and miniskirts, assumes the role of apex predator (also the title of one of the show’s best songs), with Regina’s minions now at her side.

As the minions, Gretchen and Karen, the spectacular Ashley Park and Kate Rockwell snatch scene after scene. Frankly, they outshine the show’s stars — which is no knock on Henningsen or on Taylor Louderman, who does a bang-up job as Regina and can belt like nobody’s business. But Regina and Cady, in their own ways, have to be the straight women, while Park and Rockwell get to flex their comic muscles. Park (who was heartbreaking in last year’s KPOP) is a brilliant collection of neurotic tics and forced smiles as Gretchen, the trying-so-hard-it-hurts keeper of Regina’s secrets. Her solo, “What’s Wrong With Me?”, is a hilarious and genuinely painful cry of teenage insecurity, and Park belts it out with real pathos and a twitchy glint in her eye that’s just this side of insane.

Equally excellent is Karen’s solo number, “Sexy,” a parody of contemporary costume trends in which the marvelously spacey Rockwell gets to walk us through why Halloween is Karen’s favorite holiday: “I can be who I wanna be … And sexy!” As Rockwell kicks and twirls and stares smilingly into the middle distance, the ensemble gyrates around her as “Sexy Corn,” “Sexy Jaws,” and “Sexy Rosa Parks.” Benjamin’s lyrics are at their sharpest and funniest, and Fey buttons the song with with one of the show’s best new jokes (I won’t give it away, but it involves being a “sexy doctor” and curing some “sexy cancer”).

Mean Girls isn’t flawless. The first act is so strong, with such a well-built, fast-paced arc, that the second half feels like it takes a few tugs on the starter cord before the lawn mower fires up again. Some of the movie’s best jokes don’t fully land in their delivery, and Kerry Butler, one of the only two actors in the company playing adults, has an impossible job, tasked with doing a straight-up Tina Fey impression (in full Liz Lemon business casual) as the math teacher Ms. Norbury. But as Karen, revealing hidden depth, says to Cady late in the show, “Everything is really two things. Like how you were tricking us but also still had fun with us. And how when Regina was mean to me, it’s because she was unhappy with herself.” True to the production’s generous spirit, Butler gets to be three things — she’s also Cady’s mother and Regina’s ridiculous, too-young-dressing, Yorkshire terrier–toting “cool mom,” and the creative challenge of jumping between roles is what really lets her shine.

Fey and Waters’s film has as much of a place in the teen-movie canon as Clueless or Heathers, and the musical preserves all that was sharpest about it, while adding a few barbs for today. My personal favorite is delivered, of course, by Damien, as he warns Cady against the temptation of engaging in meaningless online-comment warfare: “Cause when you feel attacked,” he sings blithely, “That’s a feeling, not a fact. / Don’t jump online and react. / You really need to stop.” It’s not shocking that Mean Girls is a fast-paced fancy funtime, but it’s a real treat to find that it’s still witty, worldly, and wise.

Mean Girls is at the August Wilson Theatre.

On Wednesdays, We Do Two Shows: Mean Girls, Awarely Onstage