Mean Girls
Pictured (L-R): Danielle Wade (Cady Heron), Megan Masako Haley (Gretchen Wieners), Nadina Hassan (Regina George), Jonalyn Saxer (Karen Smith), Mary Kate Morrissey (Janis Sarkisian), and the National Touring Company of Mean Girls; Credit: 2021 Jenny Anderson

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High school cliques break everyone down into archetypes: jocks, nerds, queen bees, wannabees, sexually active band geeks—the list goes on. But there are really only two kinds of people: those who still have dozens of Mean Girls quotes bouncing around in their heads nearly 20 years after the film debuted, and everyone else.   

The first type of person probably only needs to read a positive headline to know they won’t want to miss the musical adaptation of Mean Girls currently on tour at the Kennedy Center. Non-fans, however, are unlikely to be won over by the musical alone, as most of what makes it enjoyable is its very faithful recapturing of the original’s magic.  

As tempting as it would be to fill the rest of this column with nothing but Mean Girls quotes (surefire clickbait even now, if Buzzfeed is any indication), the main message of the musical, the movie, and the parenting advice book they’re technically based on, is to look beyond the surface and appreciate things for what they truly are. So, what to make of this adaptation?

The musical is at its most polished in the first half, as lifelong homeschooler Cady Heron (Danielle Wade) is plucked from the savannas of Kenya and dropped into a new, dangerous jungle: North Shore High. Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw makes a cast of 30 feel like an entire school of 300, populating every clique that Cady’s new gurus, Janis (Mary Kate Morrissey) and Damian (Eric Huffman), lead her through in their sung cafeteria tour “Where Do You Belong?” Tables on wheels turn and spin, a letter jacket comes off, and suddenly the jocks are the sexually active band geeks. In another scene, Cady is transported from math to French class in the blink of an eye. These delightful tricks give the show an exhilarating pace, as nearly every set piece glides in and out on wheels in front of an impressive array of projected backgrounds that change in an instant. 

It all comes to a head as the music crescendos, the digital high school background is subsumed by shimmering pink light, and The Plastics–vapid Karen (Jonalyn Saxer), minion Gretchen (Megan Masako Haley), and the queen bee herself, Regina George (Nadina Hassan), are rolled into the spotlight in an entrance so triumphant that makes it feel like the iconic characters themselves have stepped into real life. The energy of the scene is so high it could practically be the production’s climax—but unfortunately, it comes in the first 20 minutes of its almost two-and-a-half-hour run. 

The rest of Mean Girls struggles to keep up with the breakneck pace of its opening, with lively musical numbers unfortunately balanced with songs that feel more like filler, and with most of the really interesting stagecraft forgotten by the second act. In an effort to keep things zippy, Tina Fey’s adaptation of her own 2004 script keeps the rapid-fire jokes coming, mixing in just enough new ones (especially for Damien, serving as a fourth-wall-winking, drama-loving theater kid) to keep things interesting, while still managing to pack in the dozens of quotable lines that have kept the movie relevant for almost two decades. When it comes to the appropriate number of Mean Girls quotes, the limit does not exist. That said, most of the best parts of the musical are those pulled directly from the film, with the very notable exception of Karen, elevated from a one-note, one-brain-celled buffoon into an absolute storm of chaotic and vacuous energy that continuously takes the audience by surprise, especially with Saxer’s incredible comedic timing. 

But it’s not really a complaint to say that the musical never quite gets out from under Mean Girls’ shadow. The movie is a practically flawless work of art, much like Regina George, and we can’t really blame Cady or the musical for falling into its irresistible gravity. The musical shines everywhere it needs to, and is a memorable way to relive the magic without having to dust off the DVD for the thousandth time. Since the musical has no firm plans to resume on Broadway, superfans would do best to bask in the Plastics’ pink aura via this unique medium while they still have the chance.   

Mean Girls, directed by Casey Nicholaw with book by Tina Fey, lyrics by Nell Benjamin, and music by Jeff Richmond, plays at the Kennedy Center through April 24. $45–$199.