Can we stop trying to make Mean Girls happen?
Sure, I remember the glory days spent with these queen bees and wannabes. It was 2004. Lindsay Lohan was still sane, Tina Fey was still the funny lady on Saturday Night Live, and I was still in high school.
My friends and I dutifully memorized the myriad one-liners bursting from Fey’s snappy script. On Wednesdays, we wore pink. We debated who had a regular mom and who had a cool mom. The closet cases among us secretly swooned over Aaron Samuels. (Guilty!)
But tenth grade doesn’t last forever — thank god — and tastes change. I haven’t seen Mean Girls the film in more than a decade, and I can’t be sure that I would hold it so dearly now, as a thirty-something adult, as I did when I was sixteen. I certainly felt the strain of the material’s limitations as I took in the national tour of its musical adaptation, now playing a two-week engagement at the Academy of Music.
Or maybe the musical — with a libretto by Fey, music by Jeff Richmond (Fey’s husband), and lyrics by Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde) — just doesn’t possess the charm that radiated from its source material. The film, from what I can remember, contained a gritty edge that’s entirely missing from its stage cousin, which is directed and choreographed with maximum flash (and little individuality) by Casey Nicholaw.
For one thing, the original Mean Girls existed in a world before social media. Gossip was whispered and memorialized on bathroom walls, which added a conspiratorial air to the cliquish Plastics and their legendary Burn Book. In keeping with the times, Fey had to introduce Facebook, Twitter, and Insta into the conversation — yet the omnipresence of this digital footprint actually weakens the backstabbing high school ethos the movie so carefully cultivates. It also makes for a rather nondescript physical production: the actual set pieces (by Gregg Barnes) are minimal, leaving the heavy lifting to sparkly but cheesy video designs by Finn Ross and Adam Young.
A lack of distinction also defines Richmond’s musical score, of which I struggle to recall a single melody mere hours later. Benjamin’s lyrics are no better, and for all her well-established wit, Fey’s book often tries too hard to seem au courant. The effort feels very much like a cadre of middle-aged people trying woefully to nail done contemporary teenage angst.
The performances of the touring cast all operate on a blandly professional level, although Mary Kate Morrissey (as Janis Sarkisian, a minor character in the film who’s turned into a de facto narrator here) flaunts a voice that occasionally shakes the rafters. Neither Danielle Wade (Cady Heron) nor Mariah Rose Faith (Regina George) display enough personality to strike the necessary adversarial sparks. It’s worth noting that none of these “teenagers” look like they’ve seen the inside of a classroom in quite some time.
Nicholaw’s choreography is often derivative of his earlier, better work — the Kenya-set opening number recalls The Book of Mormon, minus that musical’s caustic humor — and the material itself raises some lingering questions. Why is it okay to take down the image-obsessed Regina by hatching a plan that causes her to gain weight, then ridiculing her for it? Why are hoary gay stereotypes still blithely accepted in mainstream entertainment? Does the show really earn its preachy, bathetic finale, where we’re implored to all just get along?
I’m still searching for answers, though I expect I’m largely alone in that respect. At the first performance of the Philadelphia engagement, the audience mostly waited in anticipation for the characters onstage to speak the classic lines from the film. It’s a simulacrum-like phenomenon I’ve observed many times now that screen-to-stage adaptations are the rule, rather than the exception, in contemporary musical theater.
In fact, the biggest applause of the night came when Damien Hubbard (played by the frenetic Eric Huffman) bellowed during the trust-fall scene that the lachrymose, loquacious girl imploring everyone to be friends “doesn’t even go here.” I remember quoting that line, and many others, ad infinitum to my friends in the hallways of my high school. Now, I barely cracked a smile. You really can’t go home, or back to homeroom, again.
The Philadelphia engagement of Mean Girls runs through December 1st at the Academy of Music. For more information, visit the Kimmel Center’s website. For information on future tour stops, visit the musical’s website.