Through Dec. 3
The National Theatre
1321 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
“Mean Girls” was the sleeper hit of 2004. A smart, girl empowering comedy written by Tina Fey with a star-making performance by Lindsay Lohan, the smallish film about a high school girl who’s drawn into a ruthless A-list teen scene made a lot of money and gained cult status especially among a millennial demographic.
Now “Mean Girls” is back as a high energy, Broadway-bound musical making its world premiere at National Theatre. Featuring a funny book by Fey, the same-titled show brings a lot of what’s best from the movie to the stage and proves there’s little this writer/actor can’t do.
The film’s Netflix synopsis reads, “After growing up abroad, brainy teen Cady Heron moves to Chicago and haphazardly joins her new high school’s most powerful clique. But there’s hell to pay when the ex-boyfriend of the clique’s menacing shows interest in being Cady’s guy.”
The musical’s plot remains the same and thankfully all the same characters are back. There’s Cady (Erika Henningsen) and her first two new school friends, cynical outsider Janis Sarkisian (Barret Wilbert Weed) and her entertaining overweight gay pal Damian Hubbard (Grey Henson); the Plastics — alpha mean teen Regina George (Taylor Louderman) and her minions including anxious Gretchen Wieners (Ashley Park) and dim but likable Karen Smith (Kate Rockwell); and Cady’s good-looking crush Aaron Samuels (Kyle Selig). Cady’s unlucky AP calculus teacher Ms. Norbury (Fey’s role in the film) is played by Kerry Butler.
The show comes with a built-in audience. A young guy to my left anticipated familiar lines from the film (“Too gay to function,” “You can’t just ask people why they’re white” and “I can’t help it if I’ve got a heavy flow and a wide-set vagina.”) and laughed appreciatively. During intermission he shared that when the film came out he was sophomore in high school. His English teacher assigned the class to read the non-fiction self-help book “Queen Bees and Wannabes” (the nonfiction self-help book that inspired Fey’s screenplay) followed by a field trip to see the film.
But there are surprises too. Regina’s seemingly one-dimensional superficial, “cool mom” (also played Butler) gets a sweet song titled “Call Your Mother.” Song and dance open new opportunities for hilarity. Karen’s lazy ribbon dance is an instant classic. And the action is backed by a curvilinear screen that expertly displays both snowy suburban streets and nasty social media posts (set in 2017, North Shore High School is now appropriately smart phone obsessed).
The score by Fey’s husband Jeff Richmond (music) and Nell Benjamin who supplies fun lyrics like “My friends are kinda squeaky and I’ve forgotten my Swahili” is an amalgam of old and new Broadway, hip hop and lots of rock. Tony Award-winning Casey Nicholaw’s choreography performed by a freakishly energetic and talented ensemble is athletic and daring with nods to the past. A song about high school cliques titled “Where Do You Belong?” breaks out into a big splashy cafeteria-set number involving lunch trays. Nicholaw also directs.
There are swell performances too. Louderman’s lead Plastic Regina is scarily soulless and vacuous Karen is endlessly amusing. As openly gay junior Damian with is collection of carefully curated T-shirts featuring Cher, Liza and Bianca Del Rio, Henson leaves us wanting more. Weed’s Janis is more subdued than her film counterpart but her powerhouse singing packs a wallop. Hemmingsen gives a terrific performance even though her Cady is flintier than Lohan’s and as of yet not as fully realized.
What’s missing here is Cady’s intimate, first-person narration that featured prominently in the film. A genuinely nice home-schooled only child brought up in Africa by American zoologist parents, Cady is suddenly dropped into an upper middle class high-school world where she navigates a scary course of revenge. She might as well have landed on the moon. Her observations and perspective are key. The musical’s narration comes from Janis and Damian. It sets the story but little else.
There’s still time to find what’s lacking before the show opens on Broadway in the spring.