Broadway’s ravenous addiction to sourcing popular movies for the stage and setting them to music shows no signs of abating. In recent seasons we’ve seen “Legally Blonde,” “Bring It On: The Musical,” “Kinky Boots,” and “Groundhog Day,” among others. And let’s not forget that the longest running tuner on Broadway, “The Phantom of the Opera,” is based on a movie. Two movies, in fact.
Yet each of these musical reboots must face a crucial litmus test. Does it offer substantially more depth, more heart, and more verve than the source material to justify a $15 million investment?
In the case of the latest entry, “Mean Girls,” inspired by the 2004 teen comedy starring Lindsay Lohan that skewers the cutthroat social gyrations of high school, the answer is definitely, fervently yes.
Granted, the creative team is impressive, but by no means a guarantee of success. Tina Fey, who wrote the movie screenplay but had zero credits writing for theater, does a fine job with the book, with a focused story and a witty, of-the-moment script, with zingers like “Stop picking at the emotional zit that you can’t pop.”
Fey has wisely shifted the time period from 2004 to today, injecting this “Mean Girls” with a fresh relevance. Smartphones and social media now dominate, offering new chances for meanness. The dialogue is flecked with topical references to being “woke” and jabs at the current president, always good for a laugh.
Casey Nicholaw, of “Something Rotten” and “Book of Mormon” fame, works his gleeful trademark magic as both director and choreographer. The musical numbers, with a score composed by Jeff Richmond (Fey’s husband) and Nell Benjamin, are as exuberant and eye-popping as any you’ll find on Broadway. The dizzying choreography is an improbable mix of tap dancing, animalistic fighting, trust falls, and Vaudeville-esque shimmying with cafeteria trays.
The challenge, of course, was to flesh out undeveloped characters, intensify key emotional moments, and cut out the extraneous bits, without alienating a rabid fan base that wants to see the familiar yet still be surprised. On that score, the creators have hit the sweet spot.
Most of the key plot points are retained. Sixteen-year-old Cady (a remarkably fluid Erika Henningsen), after years of being homeschooled in Africa, lands at North Shore High in a wealthy Chicago suburb and, despite her dorky ways, is adopted by the supreme clique known as The Plastics.
Cady, more comfortable hanging out with the artsy misfits Damian (Grey Henson, who shines as the outspoken gay maverick) and Janis (Barrett Wilbert Weed), joins The Plastics as a joke. She secretly sabotages the queen bee Regina (Taylor Louderman, in top form) by tricking her into eating “weight loss” bars that are actually loaded with empty calories. What Regina really loses is her slim figure and her alpha status, and, well, you can guess who steps in to fill the void.
Complicating matters is Cady’s crush on dreamboat Aaron (Kyle Selig), who happens to be Regina’s ex-boyfriend and is strictly off limits. And then there’s the dreaded Burn Book, a scrapbook of student photos with bitchy, scathing comments, that gets into the wrong hands and causes heartbreak, betrayal, and revenge. One page even accuses a certain student of masturbating with a frozen hot dog. They don’t call it “Mean Girls” for nothing.
The movie’s most famous quip, “Stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen,” was preserved but did not land. Instead, a later twist on that line earned guffaws.
Scott Pask’s set is a marvel of high-tech wizardry, where dazzling video images create the backdrops, allowing for split-second scene changes. Think “Dear Evan Hansen” on a cocktail of Red Bull and Adderall.
Evoked even more successfully than in the movie are the surreal, highly theatrical scenes of students morphing into vicious wild animals, fighting each other for survival, and highlighting what Cady sees as alarming parallels between the ecosystems in high school and the Serengeti. “Every food chain has its acme,” she declares.
Not that novel insights are the musical’s strong suit. It trots out the same tropes from nearly every teen musical: Be yourself. Fight for your right to fit in. Embrace your inner nerd. Be careful what you wish for. Calling people ugly won’t make you more beautiful.
And if the delightfully engaging “Mean Girls” isn’t enough to sate your appetite for musicals drawn from movies, take note. Another tuner, based on a hit 1995 movie also set in high school, is currently in development — “Clueless: The Musical.”
MEAN GIRLS | August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd St. | Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m. Sun. at 3 p.m. | $149-$260 at meangirlso
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