Some modern musicals stab at your heart (“Come From Away”), punch you in the gut (“Next to Normal”) or stimulate your brain (“Hamilton”). “Mean Girls” activates the gag reflex at the back of your throat. But in a good way.
The 2004 film-to-2018 Broadway stage musical, now on tour, features a sweet and naïve homeschooled teen named Cady Heron (Danielle Wade), who was raised in rural Kenya and arrives in suburban Illinois to attend public high school. She soon discovers the social food-chain that defines North Shore High and the popular apex predators, known as The Plastics, who rule the school. Cady is charmed by the ruthless Regina George (Mariah Rose Faith), the alpha female in this three-pack of mean girls (Megan Masako Haley as the insecure Gretchen and Jonalyn Saxer as the dim-lit Karen), and is coerced by her new best friends and social outcasts Janis (Mary Kate Morrissey) and Damian (Eric Huffman) to infiltrate and undermine the clique.
Anyone who has been on the receiving end of the eat-or-be-eaten social environment of high school, which is nearly everyone, will most surely experience phantom acid reflux as they watch and re-live the angst that drives “Mean Girls,” just as they did while watching “Carrie,” “Bring It On,” “Heathers,” “Be More Chill” and other musicals that take place in a high school setting.
But the good news is that this one is written by nine-time Emmy Award winner and cleverest-person-in-the-room Tina Fey, has music by three-time Emmy Award winner Jeff Richmond, lyrics by two-time Tony Award nominee Neil Benjamin, and employs Tony Award winner Casey Nicholaw as its director and choreographer.
What that means is that the simple, predictable plot on which “Mean Girls” is based – which is true to the movie and is actually laid out for all to see in the show’s opening number “A Cautionary Tale” – is imbued with all the gaudy excesses of the Broadway musical form that Nicholaw mastered while staging original productions of “The Book of Mormon,” “Something Rotten,” “Spamalot” and others. And he and his designers do so for the sole purpose of generating a ton of fun.
Fey’s wicked-smart script is peppered with witty rapid-fire insults and return volleys. Brief instances of dialogue give way to a seemingly endless supply of elaborate production numbers filled with high-energy and magnificently executed dance – including an unexpected break into tap – that are supported by an exceptional orchestra under Rebekah Bruce Parker’s baton. The stage is saturated with Finn Ross and Adam Young’s wildly animated and quick-change digital projections and Kenneth Posner’s vivid lighting, from which Scott Pask’s scenic design is built. And everyone is adorned in Gregg Barnes’ brilliantly colored and age-appropriate costuming. The stage seems to pulse with kinetic energy and appears to be in a state of perpetual motion.
This high volume/high velocity production is successful at corralling those prone to inattentiveness – you know, teenagers and those who went through high school dazed and confused. But it leaves the rest of us so overwhelmed by stimulation that much of what made this show so gloriously entertaining – the wicked-smart script, the clever lyrics and the well-crafted music – fades into a blur of activity once the curtain comes down.
Still, there will be no problem recalling the powerhouse vocals and spot-on portrayals delivered by this exceptionally talented ensemble. Or regretting this two hour excursion back to the horrors of, urp, high school.