In 2002, the book “Queen Bees and Wannabes” by Rosalind Wiseman was written as a way for teen girls to navigate the harsh environment of the high school halls. Only one year later, “Saturday Night Live” writer and performer Tina Fey brought the idea of making the book into a film to producer Lorne Michaels. With “Freaky Friday” director Mark Waters attached, he brought on Lindsay Lohan, due to their connection from the film to read for the role of the queen bee Regina George. However, Lohan’s spotless reputation at the time and casting decided she would be better suited as the central character to the film, Cady Heron, a good girl who moves from “Africa” (no country in particular in the movie, just Africa) to small town Evanston, Illinois to become socialized with kids her age. Since the film’s release it has had an undeniable cultural impact from pop stars referencing “Mean Girls” in music videos all the way to the memes that utilize the movie’s clever dialogue. Twelve years later from the movie’s debut, a musical version was announced with its sights set on Broadway. While the movie dealt with pertinent issues to 2004, the stage version was updated in 2016 to nix some of the material that had not aged particularly well and to confront the effect social media had on teen girls. “Mean Girls: the Musical” plays the Broward Center for the Performing Arts now until May 7 with tickets available here.
While the film was centered around Cady Heron as both the central character and narrator, the musical “Mean Girls” begins with characters Janis Sarkisian (Lindsay Heather Pearce) and Damien Hubbard (Samuel Gerber) taking center stage, addressing the audience as freshmen on their first day of high school. The show is framed as “A Cautionary Tale” with an acoustic guitar backing Janis with her “teen angst” painting in hand, Damien with a tambourine and portrait of George Michael, a joke about a gay icon that comes across as “How do you do, fellow gay teens?” Though the humor has some hits and misses in new jokes not from the original film, it is undeniable how much each performer is giving on the stage. Gerber delivers an Andrew Rannells-level performance in a strident vocal performance, expert comedic sensibilities and especially the tap dance frenzy of “Stop.” As we transition to Kenya in the song “It Roars,” we are introduced to the plucky protagonist, Cady Heron (English Bernhardt) who sings of pining for the new adventure that awaits her. The last time she was at Broward Center, Bernhardt had been a standby for the primary roles of Cady, Regina and Janis so her full time performances of Cady are extremely measured and studied to each subtle nuance of her arc from “misfit jungle freak” to killer teen queen are underscored by her thrilling, clean belting vocals. Tony-winning set designer Scott Pask builds the Kenya scene and the extended metaphor of high school being like the animal kingdom by creating hodge-podge animal puppets for the ensemble to don in this scene in a nod to Julie Taymor’s “The Lion King” designs.
As we meet the rest of the student body of North Shore High from “sexually active band geeks” to the Mathletes through the song “Where Do You Belong?” that feels like a Kander and Ebb romp re-written for the millennial age, understudy Samuel Gerber as Damien is given a massive feature as a true showman as well as, the ensemble who work tirelessly through rapid costume changes and moving sets. Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, known for shows like “The Prom” and recently in “Some Like It Hot,” he is known for a very Broadway style of dance that references jazz, however here his massive group numbers are performed in an absolute spectacle that evokes modern dance with the ensemble popping and locking their way through the first songs with plenty of Fosse-esque jazz hands and tap moments. When Cady becomes content with finding her clique through Damien and Janis, she is introduced to the show’s antagonist trio where we “Meet The Plastics.” Notable for being the first woman of color to play the queen bee herself as Regina George, Nadina Hassan leans into a soft, sultry almost R&B tone for the iconic villain while displaying her pangy belt that is absolutely aiming for the cheap seats. Her Number 2, Gretchen Wieners (Jasmine Rogers) is characterized as being neurotic and anxious while flaunting her looks and safety being beneath Regina’s heel. In the first act, it seemed as though Rogers was not entirely playing up the comedy and nervousness of the role, but by the second act it felt as though she was fully present in her line delivery, committing to becoming the frantic friend. With the producers of the show re-assessing where they could add in a more colorblind approach to the cast after the “Dear White Theater” moment of 2020, we no longer see an all-white triage of Plastics (or in the Broadway and pre-COVID cast’s case, two white girls and one usually Asian actress.) Karen Smith (Morgan Ashley Bryant) is described as “the dumbest person you will ever meet” and in her portrayal, Bryant is a triple threat of razor sharp comedic timing, crisp dance movements and a resonant vocal presence that doesn’t entirely need to belt at all. Like Bernhardt, Bryant returns in a lead role having been in the ensemble the last time she was at the Broward Center.
Heather Ayers has a stacked triple role as Mrs. Heron/Mrs. Norbury/Mrs. George, who are all three in the film portrayed by the SNL alums of Ana Gasteyer, Tina Fey, and Amy Pohler respectively. While lyric changes rob some of her role of Mrs. Heron from having some backstory as to why she was in Kenya in the first place. Ayers gets the most to do with Fey’s mile-a-minute joke style in Mrs. George as a brash “cool mom” with her characterization hitting so close to home that a gaggle of bleach blonde moms in the row in front of me absolutely cackled every time she delivered a line. As Mrs. Norbury, Ayers has more to do but Fey’s more subtle comedic delivery works best on screen and on stage doesn’t translate as readily in relaying classic lines like “Oh, hi. Did you wanna buy some drugs?” Two cast veterans have returned for the show’s return, as the school’s Mr. Duval, Lawrence E. Street appears as the straight man foil to the high school insanity while getting the addition of some stellar one-liners. The romantic interest, Regina’s former flame Aaron Samuels (Adante Carter) is caught between the two sparring girls, while given a new subplot about having to be homeschooled towards the end of the show due to him faking an address to go to North Shore that was revealed in the infamous “Burn Book.” As Samuels, Adante Carter is a charismatic man that is meant to foil both of the show’s mean girls and offers moments of striking acting chops with a fierce tenor. The nature of the role having less agency unfortunately underutilizes Carter, but I do not doubt this is the last time we will see him in a Broadway level leading role. The ladies of “Mean Girls” pretty evenly get a feature song to display their full range– Regina’s fierce high notes on “World Burn” are absolutely earth shattering, Karen gets “Sexy” in a campy dance track about girls on Halloween and even Gretchen gets her “Mister Cellophane” moment in “What’s Wrong With Me?” in a well-acted moment begging for sympathy. The true 11 o’clock number the show claims lies with Janis Sarkisian in the pop/rock “I’d Rather Be Me” which Lindsay Heather Pearce delivers, middle fingers blazing with smooth riffs and an intensity on the option up notes that definitely evokes her previous tenure as Elphaba in “Wicked.”
The musical is definitely influenced, much like its film counterpart by adaptations of teen comedies like “Heathers” and “Legally Blonde” but lacks some of the grit of their respective adaptations. Where “Heathers” is a dark comedy and “Legally Blonde” finds its musical humor in its infectious songs, “Mean Girls” tries the latter formula, probably due to the fact that the musical of Elle Woods and Cady Heron share lyric writer Nell Benjamin. The cognitive dissonance lies in Tina Fey’s smartly written dialogue mixed with Benjamin working in a simplistic manner of speaking that inevitably leads to just clunky lyrics like “Imagine a party with dresses and cake/And singing and dancing and cake.” Even with some rewrites of the book after the Broadway run in both Fey and Benjamin’s words, the music and dialogue seem to exist in the rule of twos– “Mean Girls” is both bafflingly brilliant and brilliantly baffling. Inevitably, with the show being able to license for high schools to perform this year, the show is a perfect entry for newer audiences with its buffet of musical styles ranging from hip hop, musical theater, all with a primarily pop/rock score. The music is arranged by Jeff Richmond, frequent collaborator and husband of Tina Fey, working with her on “30 Rock” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
If I may editorialize for a bit, on March 4, 2020 I saw my fourth ever live musical– “Mean Girls” at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. I had just gotten back into musical theater after seeing shows like “Wicked” and “Beetlejuice.” I adored the infectious score and indulged in a few bootlegs available on the internet that made me roar to see the show. As the fresh faced cast and crew embarked on the show’s first North American tour was unaware that in the middle of their Ft. Lauderdale run they would be given orders to go home and the show would be on an indefinite pause. A few days turned to weeks turned to months and while the Broadway production would inevitably close, the tour of “Mean Girls” would set a course back on the road. Their engagement at the South Florida theatrical house where the students of North Shore High return for one final bow as a cast that had been with the company since late 2019. Swing Grace Romanello alluded to the Broward Center run as “re-writing the narrative” of the show in Ft. Lauderdale. While some of the cast seems fatigued from balancing working the show at night, more frequent travel due to the show’s limited engagements in each city, all while trying to audition to book their next role, there’s no doubt that each of them is giving as much of 1000% as they can each night. I fully believe that at the end of this cast’s “Mean Girls” journey that they have re-written the narrative for the better– the show can finally have a proper send off and hopefully every performer can go on to bigger and better things at the end of the run. As evidenced by this blog, I have been able to see so much brilliant theater after the year of uncertainty and this cast is no doubt giving their all every night before they graduate North Shore High.
“Mean Girls” is a hilarious musical comedy perfect for audiences of all ages. While some songs drag the show and some updated jokes may not land, the show is definitely a great entry point for the newer musical theater fans with a familiar story retrofitted for the trials of social media. With guaranteed laughs for teens, parents and fans of the original film, the show is a mile-a-minute laugh riot with infectious tunes. “Mean Girls: the Musical” plays the Broward Center for the Performing Arts now until May 7 with tickets available here.