Come one, come all intergenerational audiences to Mean Girls, the musical. I’m not sure the musical Mean Girls is going to go down in the musical hall of fame, I’m not sure it will be revived many times to national acclaim, but watching this young, energetic and hilarious cast animate the technically awe-inspiring set, I feel confident in saying that audiences will remember it for a long time.
This musical has big shoes to fill -- the 2004 movie of the same name is a cultural shibboleth for those of us of a certain age (I’m looking at you, my fellow older millennials). Queen Bee of The Plastics, Regina George’s (Mariah Rose Faith) reign over North Shore High School is challenged by uprooted and homeschooled Cady Heron (Danielle Wade). Helped by new friends Damian Hubbard (Eric Huffman) and Janis Sarkisian (Mary Kate Morrissey), and frenemies Gretchen Wieners (Megan Masako Haley) and Karen Smith (Jonalyn Saxer), Cady sparks a revolt. Along the way, Cady falls for Regina’s old boyfriend Aaron Samuels (Adante Carter) and befriends teacher Ms. Norburgy (Gaelen Gilliland). It is a classic coming-of-age story in which Cady betrays and then comes back to herself, finally learning to embrace what makes her happy as opposed to what others want.
Janis and Damian MC the evening, warning the audience that what we are about to see is “A Cautionary Tale.” While the characters remain true to the movie, both Huffman and Morrissey have allowed them to evolve; their chummy chemistry is part of why this show works. Huffman’s timing is perfect, and when he breaks out into tap dance in the second half, it is a hit. Morrissey is ridiculously expressive, channeling a Janis Joplin-type of rock star power. In particular, “Apex Predator” and the rock-ballad “I’d Rather Be Me” showcase her dynamic range and bring her character to life.
As the leading roles, Faith and Wade show deference to the movie but still manage to make their characters feel fresh. Wade exudes a hapless, nerdy vibe which only gets better as the show goes on. Faith’s Regina is more relatable but still terrifying. At one moment she stands on stage, bathed in a murderous pink light, putting pen to paper and promising to make the “World Burn”--she feels like a sexy Scar. Both are excellent singers and their power struggle is perfectly encapsulated by Casey Nicholaw’s choreography. Whoever is “on top” of the social pyramid is physically elevated by their underlings, making their status crystal clear.
Often underrated parts, Haley’s Gretchen and Saxer’s Karen make this show work. Gretchen’s song, “What’s Wrong with Me?” (later brilliantly reprised by Gretchen and Regina’s mother), hits to the heart of why this story was popular to begin with: being a teen is hard and being a teenage girl is even harder.
That being said, the real star of this show is its technical knowhow and flash. The fact that this is a touring show only makes it that much more impressive. Comprised of boxy projection screens, the show moves seamlessly from Africa to the North Shore hallways. There are never any strange projection shadows (maybe they are rear-projected? Maybe they are very large LCD screens? It was hard to tell!), which helps make the spaces feel real and lived in. With so much tech it would be easy to get carried away, but this show demonstrates quite a bit of restraint with all its power. The only time they really indulge is in the song, “Revenge Party,” where the projections are popping balloons of Regina’s head. They can be forgiven -- this part is really funny and over-the-top to just the right degree.
While there is a certain boldfaced attempt to set the story in the “now,” (some of the more cringe-worthy moments try to incorporate texting into the plot in a very uneven way), I think this would have worked better as the period piece. However, the message is still the same and just as necessary now as it was in 2004 -- mean girls may get ahead initially, but authenticity (ultimately) wins out. A hard lesson, but one that bears repeating in many registers, Mean Girls plays at the Orpheum until October 13, where it then embarks on the rest of its national tour.