ABOVE: The cast of the Mean Girls national tour includes (from left) English Bernhardt as Cady Heron, Jasmine Rogers as Gretchen Wieners, Nadina Hassan as Regina George and Morgan Ashley Bryant as Karen Smith. BELOW: Based on the 2004 movie, Mean Girls explores the highs and lows of high school life. Photos by Jenny Anderson
The burns from the Burn Book are splashed all over the stage when you walk into the Golden Gate Theatre to see the national tour of Mean Girls (part of the BroadwaySF season). Some of the burns are sort of clever, “if corn flakes were a person.” Or another poor dude gets “You could live off the food in his braces.” There are a few of those awful slams that only one girl can perpetrate on another, including “Needs super jumbo tampons.” And then there’s the ultimate burn, the one we all fear to our core. Just a simple “Who?” scrawled over a photo.
High school is awful. The original Mean Girls Burn Book arrived in those (hardly) innocent pre-internet days of 2004 when the movie came out. Fast forward more than a decade to the inevitable musical adaptation, and the Burn Book bullying is no longer contained within the walls of a suburban Illinois high school but rather available for viewing on every screen in every corner of the world.
All to say there’s something retro about Mean Girls, even in its new musical form, and that’s not a bad thing. Tina Fey wrote the original screenplay and starred as one of the beleaguered teachers, and now she makes her debut as a Broadway book writer with the same story, which was inspired by Rosalined Wiseman’s 2002 nonfiction exploration Queen Bees and Wannabes.
Fey knows all the ins and outs of the plot, which remains the same: after growing up home-schooled in Kenya, new girl Cady Heron arrives in the U.S. and begins a stint in a public high school so, in her words, she can become socialized. That means quickly learning the high school caste system, from stoners (rich and poor but taking the same drugs) to obnoxious jocks to sexually active band geeks to math nerds (DO NOT fraternize here or risk certain social death), etc. At the top of the food chain are “The Plastics,” a trio of terror with supplicants Gretchen Weiners and Karen Smith supporting their queen mean girl, Regina George.
Cady is too smart for all this social nonsense – she’s a math prodigy and in Africa she was dealing with actual apex predators – but she wisely acknowledges the “need to belong that roars within us all” and unwisely falls into scheming and social climbing and ultimate disaster.
Fey’s smart, funny book is really the star here, though composer Jeff Richmond (Fey’s husband) and lyricist Nell Benjamin (of Legally Blonde fame, which feels very on point here) work hard to give this story a musical heartbeat and not just stick songs into a brand-name story. Within the realm of movie-to-musical adaptations, it sits comfortably in the middle of Beetlejuice/Carrie (at the bottom end) and Little Shop of Horrors/The Producers/A Little Night Music (at the top).
Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw brings the same comically fluid pace he brought to The Prom (a similar but better show in almost every way) and to The Book of Mormon. It’s a breakneck 2 1/2 hours with little room for actual emotion and barely time for characters to register in any meaningful way. Oddly, it’s one of the supporting players, Gretchen, who gets the most active inner life. Her song “What’s Wrong with Me” is a standout, and it’s a shame that Cady, the protagonist, can’t fails to get the same traction.
If anything, the show is too slick and efficient for its own good. Scott Pask’s set is essentially blank surfaces to be filled with the hyperactive projections by Finn Ross and Adam Young. The actors are often in competition with the visuals, and they don’t always win. The brightness of the backdrops makes it feel everything is happening in front of a giant screen saver, and that never helps warm a cold tale about mean people. For all the burning here, the show never really heats up.
Among the energetic cast members, standouts at Wednesday’s opening-night performance were Cady’s first friends in the new school, fringe dwellers Janis (Adriana Scalice, filling in for Lindsay Heather Pearce) and the “too gay to function” Damian (Eric Huffman). Also stellar was Mary Beth Donahoe filling in for Jasmine Rogers as Gretchen Wieners, the mean girl you actually root for. Some of the evening’s best laughs come from the underplayed mean girl, Karen (Megan Grosso filling in for Morgan Ashley Bryant), who is a lot smarter than she thinks.
Too often in the sound design stage voices were rendered shrill and over-miked to almost painful levels. That’s the kind of mean nobody needs.
What is the kind of mean people need? Apparently the kind that eventually helps everyone learn a lesson and become better people. The underlying message of Mean Girls – to be kind (to yourself and others), to be authentic, to be fearless – resonates, especially as it relates to young women. That is true of the movie as well, and it’s hard to say if the musical has amplified or improved that message in any meaningful way beyond simply re-telling it in an entertaining way. Sometimes you aim for “fetch” and end up with “feh.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Mean Girls continues through Feb. 26 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco, as part of the BroadwaySF season. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $66.50-$184.50 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com.