Right now, an effective anti-bullying campaign is being run at one of D.C.’s most historic institutions. No, it’s not Melania Trump’s initiative to promote kindness on the internet. It’s Mean Girls, the Broadway-bound musical adaptation of the beloved 2004 comedy about high school hierarchies currently attracting pink-clad millennials to the National Theatre in droves.
Is this adaptation necessary, especially at a time when theater audiences are embracing original musicals? The film holds up well more than a decade after its release, and other beloved young adult comedies—Bring It On, Hairspray, Legally Blonde—have made the screen-to-stage transition with varying levels of success. It turns out that Tina Fey, who wrote the film’s screenplay, knows what she’s doing. The musical, with a book by Fey, music by her husband, Jeff Richmond, and lyrics by Nell Benjamin, maintains the biting wit of the original but takes on an added sweetness that feels earned, not trite.
We meet our protagonist, Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen), in Kenya, where she’s lived for years with her biologist parents. In a Lion King-esque tribute, she sings about how much she loves her “wild life,” but soon she’s observing animals of a different sort when she transfers to a suburban Chicago high school. There she meets the Plastics—icy queen bee Regina George (Taylor Louderman), tightly wound Gretchen Wieners (Ashley Park) and simple minded Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell)—a girl gang to rival all others. Initially moved to topple Regina and bring equality back to the school’s social structure, Cady becomes obsessed by her power and by Act II, is belting about how she “bossed up.” Parties are thrown, rumors fly, and Regina gets hit by a bus, but eventually Cady realizes that bringing down a bully has turned her into one. After some rushed self-reflection, the characters have grown wiser, Cady’s gotten the guy, and we all go home happy. It’s a fun two-and-a-half hours spent in a familiar world.
Reactions to the events in the show come from faux social media posts projected on the set. It contemporizes the events, accepting this live reporting as a fact of life and using it as an excuse to insert new humor into a show filled with call-outs to the film’s most memorable lines. (A joke about a parent’s fake social media accounts earned audible snorts.)
These bright and busy projections, designed by Finn Ross and Adam Young, turn the set’s white walls into a shopping mall, a high school cafeteria, the plains of east Africa, and a suburban living room in a matter of seconds. Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s work with furniture is masterful, with cast members bouncing on couch trampolines and wheeling tables and desks around the stage with their feet.
But musically, the show suffers from a lack of diversity right now—songs run into each other and the melodies aren’t distinctive enough to worm their way into your brain. Anyone who’s seen 30 Rock or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt knows Richmond is capable of writing catchy, joke-dense songs, but no song in Mean Girls possesses the viral potential of “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” or “Peeno Noir.” The ensemble numbers vibrate with energy but the solo numbers lack punch.
That’s not to say the cast lacks talent. Though they’re all relatively young, their credits include runs on Broadway and at major regional theaters, and they execute the show with precision, whether they’re waving cafeteria trays or leaping like gazelles. The main characters need more chances to define their roles in songs, especially Henningsen, who lacks a closing number. Rockwell, on the other hand, sells her ode to Halloween costumes with aplomb and projects Karen’s daftness and self-love at all times.
In her book Bossypants, Fey recounts her days as a high school drama geek, and this show is a tribute to them. From the Broadway t-shirts donned by members of the high school show choir to the schmaltzy power ballad in Act II, theater people will find something for them in Mean Girls. It’s not a transcendent stage experience yet, nor has it reinvented the musical-based-on-a-movie genre, but that doesn’t matter. Audiences will laugh and quote lines with the actors, even if they’re not quite ready to sing along.
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