The drama and intrigue of female friendships has filled works from the sublime (Margaret Atwood’s 1988 novel Cat’s Eye) to the louche (any installment of the Real Housewives franchise). Tina Fey’s 2004 film Mean Girls mined some of the same cutthroat teenage frenemies territory as 1988’s Heathers—though it was directly inspired by Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 self-help book about surviving high school cliques, Queen Bees and Wannabes.
It makes sense that Fey decided to turn her film into a Broadway musical in 2018—after all, Heathers had already made the leap from screen to stage in a 2014 off-Broadway version by Laurence O’Keefe (who also wrote Legally Blonde: The Musical with his wife and Mean Girls lyricist, Nell Benjamin) and Kevin Murphy. But though the touring production now onstage at the Nederlander has many charming and witty moments that go down easy, it doesn’t make the case for why this story needed musicalization, or why it’s a better option than staying home and watching the film again. (Though admittedly the latter makes one mourn the lost potential of Lindsay Lohan, even if Rachel McAdams has had a deservedly high-profile career since playing Regina George, the queen of the “Plastics” clique who dominate fictional North Shore High School’s social scene.)
The score by Jeff Richmond (Fey’s husband) is peppy but disposable. The changes Fey made from the screenplay to the musical’s book feel more like arbitrary lateral moves, rather than reinvestigations of some of the more disturbing elements from the movie. The coach who was preying on two teenage girls (both Asian, which feels like the kind of racial blind spot Fey’s been accused of demonstrating in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) has been excised. But now we’ve got Jonalyn Saxer’s Karen, the dimmest bulb in the Plastics coterie, reminiscing about sending nude pictures to an adult man when she was 13, and being upset that he shared them online. In a show that already has trouble deciding if it’s going for black comedy, a la Heathers, or if it wants to be a spritely ode to female empowerment through learning cooperation rather than competition, a moment like that, devoid of deeper context, just feels queasy.
The story of Cady Heron (Danielle Wade), the only child of zoologist parents who was raised and homeschooled in Kenya before joining North Shore’s John Hughes-like world, is also in part a faux-scientific disquisition on cliques (as captured in the song “Apex Predator,” about Mariah Rose Faith’s Regina, who “can smell your fear in this biosphere”), crossed with a classic underdog revenge tale. Cady is initially recruited to infiltrate the Plastics by Janis (Mary Kate Morrissey), Regina’s best friend from middle school who was cruelly shunted aside and now, along with “too gay to function” Damian (Eric Huffman, a winning presence throughout, particularly in the tap-dancing number “Stop”) dreams of ways to melt the Plastics empire entirely.
Crucially, the narration that frames the story, voiced in the film by Lohan’s Cady, now comes from Janis and Damian, which serves to distance us from Cady’s own growing awareness of what her attempts to fit in have cost her personally and socially. And though the “Burn Book” that sets the high school world on fire still has pride of place, the musical updates the toxic gossip for the age of Instagram and other social media, captured, a la Dear Evan Hansen, through projections of posts and comments. (Finn Ross and Adam Young are credited with video design.)
Cady’s parents are also mostly shunted to the side, making us wonder why they’re not noticing the changes in their kid. (In the film, their cluelessness provides an adult counterpart to Cady’s own stranger-in-a-strange-land sense of dislocation.) But Gaelen Gilliland does admirable triple duty as Mrs. Heron, Mrs. George (Amy Poehler’s line from the film, “I’m not like a regular mom, I’m a cool mom!,” shows up here), and the math teacher Ms. Norbury (played by Fey in the film), who sees Cady deliberately dumbing herself down in order to appeal to Aaron (Adante Carter), Regina’s ex. But it’s Janis who points out “she just pretended to be dumb to get a boy to keep talking to her and it worked. Because that shit always works.” It’s a nail-on-head moment, even if it’s pounded down with a sledgehammer.
There are some additions that really do enhance from the original. Saxer’s Karen gets the most succinct insight into how Cady’s scheme backfired (spoiler alert: she starts becoming everything she hates in backbiting Regina), but also served its own purpose. It’s the Rule of Twos, where two seemingly opposite things can both be true—”like how you were spying on us, but also having fun with us.”
Maybe that’s the best way to look at Mean Girls onstage: we’re spying on the lives of teenagers with appropriate concern for how cliques damage them, while also relishing the stereotypes. Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography offers plenty of tongue-in-cheek interludes; for example, a Halloween party features the song “Sexy,” in which every girl’s costume is a lascivious version of everything from corn to cats. The cast is uniformly endearing, and if you already like the film, you’ll probably not be disappointed. But if you’re looking for something that adds additional insight, rather than just a coating of pop music to the pop psychology? Well, like “fetch,” that isn’t going to happen. v