Welcome to the jungle! No not the Serengeti plains where both wildebeest and ostrich have reason to fear the predatory lion. This is Chicago’s fictional North Shore High School where the creatures quaking in fear are students and the beast they fear is the lioness Regina George.
The metaphor of high school as a cliquish jungle where survival means staying away from Regina and her “plastic” sidekicks or be preyed upon is the perfect set-up for the screen to stage translation of the 2004 hit comedy film “Mean Girls” into the Broadway-bound musical Mean Girls now fetching sell-out crowds at DC’s National Theatre. I predict the full houses will continue once the show enrolls on Broadway, boasting a powerhouse cast, dynamic staging and design, Fey’s strong book, and an engaging score.
The box office boom is partly based on fans of the film, and the reputation of original screenwriter turned book writer Tina Fey, one of the sharpest and wittiest writers working today. I can happily report fans of the movie should be pleased as punch at the musical, and Fey’s work surpasses the screenplay. Fey wisely updates the story to the present day with its proliferation of social media.
Filling the shoes of the movie’s star Lindsay Lohan, Erika Henningsen is the central character, Cady Herron. Henningsen takes the fish-out-of-water or home-schooled Brainiac and makes the role her own. The actress is a charmer, exudes innocence as she finds herself in the treacherous high school setting and allows Cady’s taking charge of her life to grow as the musical builds. Henningsen also possesses a warm, clear voice that can let loose when required. She establishes her girl-next-door persona with “My Wild, Wild Life,” starting in Africa where she has lived for years with her parents and ending in the hallowed halls of North Shore High. (Any song titles are my best guess; musical numbers were not listed in the program.)
Cady is not the showy role but that doesn’t mean Henningsen makes any less of an impact. Her arc is the thrust of the musical and she shows the rise, fall and redemption of her likable character with clarity. She also has an easy chemistry with Kyle Selig, the actor playing heartthrob Aaron, Regina’s former boy-toy.
Cady’s nemesis, “the apex predator,” as she dubs her, is blond and beautiful Regina George. My description is not meant to objectify the character or the performer born to play her in this musical, namely Taylor Louderman. The point of both the film and the musical is that a spoiled, heartless, calculating, heartbreaker rules the school with killer looks and instincts.
closes December 3, 2017
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In the film, Rachel McAdams could be slightly more subtle as the uber mean girl. Stage musicals work with broader strokes and must fill an auditorium with sound and spectacle – all of which Miss Louderman handles with extreme confidence, her own brand of bold subtlety and the singing pipes to raise the roof. In one of the best stage entrances I’ve seen in years, Regina and her companions are rolled out, posing on cafeteria tables as pink lights and smoke swirl around them. “My name is Regina George and I’m the prettiest poison you’ve ever seen,” Louderman delivers in a mixture of belt and purr that screams seduction and destruction.
Aside from killer vocals, Louderman is also given fantastic lines by Fey, allowing the audience to peek at Regina’s suppressed vulnerability. Other characters dub Regina and her minions ‘plastics’ because they are “cold and hard.” The group not only has many rules they follow – “Wednesdays, we wear pink” – they also possess a burn book filled with names and pictures of all the mortals the Plastics have destroyed, made examples of or simply hate. Scott Pask’s dynamic set, enlivened by animated projections uses the burn book as inspiration, showing examples of the messed up pictures and horrible comments at the top of the show.
Rounding out the triumvirate of Plastics, Ashley Park, as insecure Gretchen, and Kate Rockwell, as dumb blonde Karen, make their roles their own. Park’s manic energy is a stark contrast to Rockwell’s slow burns and vapid stares; both provide a ying and yang to Louderman’s queen bee. Park and Rockwell also get to shine vocally and they do not disappoint. In “What’s Wrong with Me?,” Park outlines her co-dependent relationship with Regina, while Rockwell delivers a hilarious song about the appeal of sexy Halloween costumes.
As the Plastics invite the new girl into their coven, Cady and her new friends Janis – a memorable performance from Barrett Wilbert Weed – and Damian – a scene-stealing turn by Grey Henson – hatch a plan to infiltrate Regina’s group and eventually destroy their reign of terror from within. This is where I think Fey’s book and the contribution of composer Jeff Richmond (Fey’s husband) and Nell Benjamin add a new life for this musical. Films traffic in the visuals while theatre combines all the elements, and in the rising action of the Plastics’s downfall, book, music and lyrics propel the story to a victorious first act closer, “Justice.” Richmond and Benjamin provide songs that grow from the book, echoing both modern Broadway and the sounds and rhythms of hip hop and rap. It all feels of one piece and should be a favorite score to young and old alike.
I would be remiss not to mention the lovely and talented Kerry Butler, Broadway ingénue turned leading lady who in Mean Girls has triple duty playing the adult females in Cady’s life: her liberal mom, Regina’s “cool mom” Mrs. George, and finally the high school teacher Ms. Norbury. Butler gamely shows off her prodigious comic chops in all three roles. (In the movie, Fey memorably played Norbury while her frequent collaborator Amy Poehler played Mrs. George.) Butler also lends her big belt of a voice, a welcome addition to the production.
All along, Mean Girls moves like lightning with clever staging and athletic choreography courtesy of Casey Nicholaw who tops his own work in Aladdin and The Book of Mormon with the cinematic and inventive patterns for this show. The opening sequence which moves from Janis and Damian introducing the story, a flashback to Cady in Africa with her parents and the wildlife and back to the new high school with its own set of animal moves like magic with kinetic wizardry backed up by the projected backgrounds which never fail to dazzle. Nicholaw’s work has a lightness here with lots of visual hooks – using cafeteria trays, school desks, and levels – like the pieces of a kaleidoscope. Nicholaw’s energetic dancing ensemble was up to the task and practically burst from the stage, backing up the leads every step of the way.
So, this is a Pre-Broadway stop, correct? This means that there could be changes to one or more aspects of the show. The creative team, including lead producer Lorne Michaels, Fey’s former boss from “Saturday Night Live,” may still think there is work to be done. From what I saw, Mean Girls currently boasts vibrant staging and production values; it has characters to love and hate; Fey’s solid and funny book; and an engaging set of music and lyrics. And the Washington audiences are clearly taken with the idea of the show having its premiere here at the National.
Compared with past high heeled hits – Legally Blonde springs to mind – I believe Mean Girls has the potential to strut onto Broadway and stay for a very long run.
Mean Girls . Book by Tina Fey . Music by Jeff Richmond . Lyrics by Nell Benjamin . Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw . Cast: Ericka Henningan, Taylor Louderman, Ashley Park, Kate Rockwell, Barrett Wilbert Weed, Grey Henson, Kerry Butler, Kyle Selig, Cheech Manohar, Rick Younger . Music direction by Mary-Mitchell Campbell . Scenic design: Scott Pask . Costume design: Gregg Barnes . Lighting design: Kenneth Posner . Sound design: Brian Ronan . Video Design: Finn Ross and Adam Young . Production stage manager: Holly Coombs . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.