Mean Girls Tour. Book by Tina Fey, Music by Jeff Richmond, Lyrics by Nell Benjamin, Directed & Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Pictured (L-R): Mary Kate Morrissey (Janis Sarkisian) and the National Touring Company of Mean Girls. Credit: © 2019 Joan Marcus
Written by Tina Fey, the film Mean Girls has reached cult-classic status since its premiere in 2004. It’s only fitting then that this story should get its own updated musical, onstage now at Durham Performing Arts Center and still with Fey at the helm, but this time with lyrics and music by Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin.
The basic story is still the same: teenage Cady Heron (Danielle Wade) leaves behind the home-schooled life in Kenya she’s always known to tackle high school in the suburbs of Chicago. What she finds is a world made up of “Plastics,” i.e. the three most popular girls in school, cliques, and a social hierarchy she struggles to understand. When her new friends, Damian (Eric Huffman) and Janis (English Bernhardt at the opening night performance), urge her to “join” the Plastics for the sole purpose of making fun of them, Cady gets drawn into their perfect, pink world and learns that the politics of popularity, and the people behind it all, are more surprising than she bargained for.
The main difference in this updated version, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, is that, true to modern-life, there’s a lot more social media involved. This fact is brilliantly showcased by the high-tech set comprised of constantly-shifting video screens. Before the show’s official start, these screens featured blown-up pages of the “Burn Book,” a book that the Plastics use to insult their classmates. Later, it served as various backdrops, perfectly lighting and capturing the feel of each scene and adding a modern touch that will appeal to younger viewers in particular.
However, there’s definitely no upper age-limit on this tale of fitting in, finding oneself, and then- the hardest part of all- having to remain true to that “self” for the long haul. Luckily, Wade’s Cady is the perfect, easy-to-identify with heroine this show demands. Wade’s powerful voice is evidenced right from the start with her song “It Roars.” Her vocal skills, combined with her adorably-awkward, sweet characterization of Cady, play nicely off of the many larger-than-life characters within the production.
Mean Girls Tour. Book by Tina Fey, Music by Jeff Richmond, Lyrics by Nell Benjamin, Directed & Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Pictured (L-R): Mariah Rose Faith (Regina George) in the National Touring Company of Mean Girls. Credit: © 2019 Joan Marcus
Huffman is hilarious and wonderfully over-the-top as “too gay to function,” George Michael-obsessed Damian. His character is given some of the film’s most famous and beloved lines, and he nails every single one to diehard-fan approval, always perfectly balanced by Bernhardt’s angry, grungy portrayal of his sidekick, Janis.
Of course, it’s not just the “good guys” who get a chance to shine here. In fact, one of the beauties of this script is that, by the time the story has played out, there aren’t really any “good guys” or “bad guys”- just flawed, believable characters, the choices they’ve made, and the oft-heartbreaking reasons behind those choices.
Plastic Gretchen (Megan Masako Haley) is a perfect example. Sure, she’s a “perfect” Plastic, but she also desperately wants to be liked and both fears and worships her leader, Regina George (Mariah Rose Faith). Haley makes her character much more sympathetic with her sad, soulful rendition of “What’s Wrong’ With Me?” a musical number that resonates with the plight of popular girls the world over.
Another “mean girl” who shines here is not-so-smart but wonderfully-endearing Karen Smith, played to absolute perfection on DPAC’s opening night by understudy Olivia Renteria. Renteria is just the right mix of bubble-gum sweetness and bubble-headed ditzyness in her role. She makes Karen a character worth rooting for, and Renteria’s moments onstage are some of the show’s funniest. Of course, Mean Girls wouldn’t be Mean Girls without the Queen “B” (yes, “B”) herself, and Faith pulls out all the stops, particularly in her fiery “World Burn” number.
All the high-school drama plays out with smooth, lightning-speed transitions, hilarious performances from Gaelen Gilliand as teacher Ms. Norbury (and a host of other characters) and Lawrence E. Street as principal Mr. Duvall, and a killer pink-infused wardrobe that’s to die for. There’s also incredible choreography from Nicholaw, including a dance number involving lunch trays in the cafeteria and a full-out tap dance routine.
All in all, this musical is as big, bold, and true-to-its-source as any avid Mean Girls fan would want it to be. However, it’s also fully self-contained for those viewers who aren’t familiar with the film. The most fun thing to hit DPAC all year, Mean Girls is a perfect pick for anyone who’s ever gone to high school and lived to tell about it.
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