Mean Girls, the new musical from Tina Fey and other collaborators, may walk away with a few Tonys and plenty of yearbook superlatives, too. It looks good for Most Popular and Most School Spirit, Teacher’s Pet and Class Clown. (Cutest Couple clearly goes to SpongeBob and Patrick). Is it Most Likely to Succeed? Yes. And maybe also no.
Because Mean Girls is fine. Mean Girls is fun. The songs, by Fey’s husband Jeff Richmond and lyricist Nell Benjamin, are catchy enough, the book is reasonably witty, the staging, by Casey Nicholaw, sufficiently fluid. The anti-bullying message is straightforward enough (maybe too straightforward, the show says it twice): “Calling someone ugly doesn’t make you better looking. Calling someone stupid won’t make you any smarter.”
But – no offense, OK? – Mean Girls is basic.
Here’s the story. Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen) grows up doing field work in Kenya with her biologist parents. She likes the life, but she has a vague, inchoate sense that it might also be nice to live somewhere with fewer ostriches and more shopping malls. Relocated to Chicago, she struggles to find friends until she’s adopted by the “art freaks” Janis and Damian Barrett Wilbert Reed and Grey Henson). When Cady catches the attention of Regina George, (Taylor Louderman) North Shore High’s HBIC, Janis and Damian persuade her to infiltrate Regina’s group, the Plastics, putting Cady at risk of becoming pretty plastic herself.
That was enough to make Fey’s 2004 movie a hit and it seems like decent source material for a peppy musical, especially with Nicholaw (Book of Mormon, Spamalot) here to zhoosh it up for Broadway and Fey around to tweak the book and update the tech. “Sometimes I feel like an iPhone without a case,” one character says mournfully. “At any time I could just shatter.”
Mean Girls is peppy. It’s rarely more than that. The actors are charming. Louderman, Henson, Kerry Butler in the Fey role, and Kate Rockwell, as a Plastic who has the blonde good looks of a Barbie doll and about as much interiority, give line readings to die for. But as the musical scampers form one bright number to the next (a Halloween party with a sexy Yoda and a sexy Abe Lincoln is a highlight), you are rarely moved to care about them or about Cady’s where-exactly-did-she-want-to-go-in-the-first-place journey.
This is not the fault of Henningsen, who does everything the script asks of her. Problem is, the script doesn’t ask enough. It’s rarely clear what Cady wants. Yes, she has an “I want” song, but it has lyrics like “I got dreams exciting me, / Like a fire igniting me,” so it’s not exactly the most precise. Is it friendship she wants? Is it love or adventure or a coherent sense of self or all of the above? Cady is mostly a passive heroine, manipulated and schooled by most of the musical’s characters, rarely acting for herself, except to post on social media. She needs a kickass song explaining how she thinks and what she desires and what she plans to do, but that song doesn’t come.
Mean Girls is clear about a lot of stuff. Girls should support each other instead of trying to tear each other down. Girls shouldn’t send nude pics and boys shouldn’t ask for them. Girls should be themselves. Agreed! But just as in Frozen, another portrait of adolescent girls playing just a few streets away, there’s no real sense of who these girls are. They’re rarely more than stereotype. The boys, too. (Dear Evan Hansen it isn’t.) That doesn’t make the sprightly show a failure or a flop or a swing and a miss, but it’s no hit either.
Here’s the best/worst thing you can say about Mean Girls: it’s nice.