MY THOUGHTS: The Pre-Broadway World Premiere of 'Mean Girls' in DC
Let me start off by saying that I normally dress up to the theatre; it's an event for me. Any time I go to the theatre or travel out of state to see theatre, I consider it a special occasion. Upon getting a ticket for a Wednesday evening performance of the pre-Broadway run of Mean Girls, my dress code was pretty much picked out for me. ("On Wednesdays we wear pink.")
Besides being a fan of Tina Fey's clever film, I have always wanted to see an out-of-town tryout of a high profile Broadway musical. Once the first performances start, there's always rumblings and grumblings of the how the show is, and the kind of shape it's in, before it hits New York. However, I have never been able to experience one of these tryouts first-hand.
I confess, I have heard a bootleg audio or two of shows' tryouts. I fall in love with the score and, for some reason or another, I usually like the songs that end up getting cut... they all work as standalone pieces of music, but the creative team of the show chooses to go in another direction, thus the song not working within the show's context or framework any longer.
The development process of a show, specifically with musicals, is something I have always been interested in. Knowing that songs, scenes, choreography, and costumes have the potential to be reworked, retooled, and reevaluated fascinates me. This time, I wanted to have the chance to experience one of these shows now that I have the financial and physical ability to fly out and see stuff.
Why Mean Girls, you ask? Well, I am of the opinion that it is attempting to be more than a typical film-to-musical adaptation that ends up being a blockbuster with tourists. Knowing that Tina Fey, who used the book Queen Bees and Wannabes as inspiration for the film, was adapting her own work with her composer husband, Jeff Richmond, of 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt fame ("Rural Juror," anyone?), was enough to tell me that a Mean Girls musical had both potential and some credibility. It may not be of the Sondheimian caliber of a complex or psychological musical theatre piece (which I love), but Mean Girls was pretty much guaranteed to be a fun and enjoyable night of theatre.
Nell Benjamin, who is most notable for working on the lyrics to Legally Blonde: The Musical, was tapped to join the songwriting team, with the production assembled by Saturday Night Live producer/Tina Fey's Mr. Miyagi, Lorne Michaels, and Tony Award-winning director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw; otherwise known as "The Man Who Knows How To Make Show-Stopping Musical Numbers." This was a team that was going to do more with the typical "turning a film to a musical" craze.
That is not to discredit any or all film-to-musicals of our time. Some have been successful, others less so. But with productions being mounted with millions of dollars at stake, well-known titles ensure a somewhat healthy box office or a decent run... whether it receives good word-of-mouth, reviews or ever turns in a profit. Rarely do we get completely original musicals like Next To Normal, If/Then, Bandstand, Something Rotten! and The Book Of Mormon (both Nicholaw's previous projects), or more recently Dear Evan Hansen, that end up becoming the next groundbreaking or long-running musical of our generation. "Art isn't easy," says Sondheim in one of my favorite shows, Sunday in the Park with George.
Mean Girls is a smart musical adaptation of the popular Paramount Pictures film. The book, by Fey, is among the strongest points of the show, with her signature wit and a plot structure pretty spot-on with the film. Fans will appreciate that a majority of the film's classic moments are still intact, but Fey has added new spins and quirks (as to be expected) that are mostly on par with what has since morphed its way into every day vernacular since the film's 2004 debut.
Richmond and Benjamin's score, orchestrated for the 14-piece band by John Clancy with musical direction by Mary-Mitchell Campbell, infuses elements of pop/rock, rap, and African tribal rhythms that burst new waves of energy into the show, leaving only a few songs as seemingly "odd ones out." As aforementioned, each number is fun and clever, working well on their own, but some are edge-worthy in finding a place to fit within the show's context. When looking at the show as a whole, there is surely still work to be done on discovering, reworking, and/or developing new musical number-worthy moments that work simultaneously to advance the plot, develop character, and still slap us with comedy for us to knee-slap back at with laughter.
While a fan of practical scenery, the show does entail several different locations, which are beautifully illustrated - and transition seamlessly - by video designers Finn Ross & Adam Young, with scenic design by Scott Pask. However, at the performance attended, one of the LED screens continued to malfunction, thus resulting in a large black static-like square of technological malfunct that became distracting.
The direction and choreography by Nicholaw is sharp, smart, and moves briskly without exhausting the audience. One of the easiest production numbers to call show-stopping comes early in the first act, ("Where Do You Belong?") in which Damian, played with aplomb by Grey Henson, introduces and examines the cliques in the cafeteria. I will never not dance without a cafeteria tray the same way ever again. Along with Henson, Barrett Wilbert Weed as Janis are the narrators of this journey, and easily walk away with the show, not merely as the highlights or sidekicks they sometimes come across as in the first act of the film.
Cady Heron, played by the well-suited and talented Erika Henningsen, bosses up (to borrow a phrase from the show) from "home-school jungle freak" to leader of the Plastics clique and back, with several memorable songs that will surely become popular and end up in young females' repertoires as soon as they're available.
The Plastics, led by a vicious and seductive Taylor Louderman as Regina, with the hilarious Ashley Park and Kate Rockwell as Gretchen and Karen, respectively, receive grand entrances with each one's musical style illustrating their rank among the posse. It is important, for these roles to work, that their commanding presence and chemistry with each other are evident; the three accomplish so successfully, resulting in empathetic laughter in their folly and triumph.
Other standouts include Cheech Manohar (as the freestyling Kevin Gnapoor, who deservedly needs more in the show), Kyle Selig (as Cady's love interest Aaron Samuels), and Tony Award-nominee Kerry Butler who pulls off the triple comedic female authority figure roles of Mrs. Heron, Ms. Norbury (Fey's role in the film), and Mrs. George. Her comedic chops - and spot-on impersonation of Fey as Norbury - are vaguely reminiscent of her highly-skilled colleague and former onstage mother, Jackie Hoffman, who played a similar female authority figure role in the original company of Hairspray.
Mean Girls, as it stands now, is strong and - like any show during a tryout - could use some retooling, but is an entertaining night out and will surely be appreciated by fans of the original film. It has major potential to be a successful film-to-musical adaptation, but with the stigma that comes along with that, hopefully it is considered more than "tourist fare".
While not trying to be hypocritical, I began to think about the current SpongeBob SquarePants musical; I have not given it much credit for its sure innovativeness and creative direction, while I am of the opinion that the subject material is not typical for a Broadway musical, as opposed to Disney titles which, as animated musical films, has and currently continues to thrive on the already-existing musical material in the films that further character development and plot. The same could be said about Mean Girls which, had it not originally been a film first, would probably not receive as much critical feedback as another adaptation.
The main point that I find in shows like Mean Girls, SpongeBob, Legally Blonde, and even Heathers, is that a younger audience will continue to discover musical theatre and do their best to be able to see shows, something I was not able to do myself as a young teenager, and eventually find ways to become active participants in theatre. They may not be the initial target audience for a musical like The Band's Visit, which permeates complex musical theatre and received critical acclaim; surely a contender come Tony Award season, but, much like the characters in these shows that appeal to the younger and/or non-musical audience, hopefully as that audience matures or becomes accustomed to theatre, they will be able to discover and appreciate the roots of the genre. So long as the roots don't get damaged from bleaching.
I will be following up on the show's development when I attend the first Broadway preview on March 12, 2018 at the August Wilson Theatre.