An ode to self-respect and the benefits of a STEM-based education, Broadway’s Mean Girls is a lively, frequently hilarious adaptation of Tina Fey’s 2004 high school comedy. Propelled by dazzling set design and several stand-out performances, the musical — written by Fey, with music by Jeff Richmond, and directed by Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon) — gives fans everything they want while bringing the saga of Regina George and the Plastics into the social media age.
The story sticks to the script, often literally, of the original film: After moving from Kenya with her parents, Cady Heron (Erika Henningsen) leaves the safety of a home-schooled environment for the hormonal jungle of North Shore High School outside Chicago. There she’s adopted by two groups of friends on the opposite ends of the social spectrum: Proud outsiders Janis Sarkisian (Barrett Wilbert Weed) and Damian Hubbard (Grey Henson), and their pink-clad nemeses Regina George, Gretchen Wieners, and Karen Smith. This means, of course, that Cady has an important decision to make — a choice that’s laid bare in “Where Do You Belong?”, a spirited song-and-dance showcase for Henson’s Damian, featuring a guided tour of North Shore’s cliques, and some very inventive choreography with cafeteria trays.
Visually, Mean Girls is a marvel. The set consists largely of a massive wall of digital screens, which display an ever-changing array of backgrounds — the surroundings can switch from a classroom to Regina’s bedroom to the mall to the golden plains of Kenya almost instantaneously, allowing for seamless transitions between scenes. It’s a sly metaphor — these screen-addicted teens are practically living in a pixel matrix — that also allows for a bounty of background jokes. Before the show begins, larger-than-life pages from the Plastics’ infamous Burn Book paper the walls, while restaurant names spotted during a scene at the mall food court include “P.J. Calamity’s” and “Borderline Seafood.”
In setting this “cautionary tale” to music, Fey and lyricist Nell Benjamin (Legally Blonde) have more latitude to explore the internal lives of these now-iconic characters. Though Henningsen’s Cady is more broadly naive than the one originated by Lindsay Lohan, her earnest vocals bring a quality of sweetness to numbers like “Stupid In Love” — in which Cady professes her equal devotion to math and her new crush Aaron Samuels (Kyle Selig). Henningsen finds her character’s edge by her fifth number, “Apex Predator” — a rocking tribute to Regina’s top-of-the-food-chain status, and the reveal of Cady’s primal desire to be popular. “What’s Wrong With Me?” shows poor Gretchen Wieners — played with a perfect mix of comic anxiety and melancholy by Ashley Park — in a rare moment of reflection: “Where is my mind? Where does it end? Maybe I need to find a better friend?”
Perhaps the most relevant number for Mean Girls’ young audience is the second-act opener “Stop” — Damian’s hilarious treatise on the importance of impulse control in the social media era: “When you feel attacked, that’s a feeling, not a fact — don’t jump online and react.” It’s another breakout performance by Henson, whose scene-stealing power is rivaled only by Kate Rockwell as Karen Smith. Though she’s playing “the dumbest person you’ll ever meet,” Rockwell finds the thoughtful, gentle soul underneath Karen’s blissed-out smile, and her ode to slutty Halloween costumes, “Sexy,” is a show-stopper. Unfortunately, Rockwell and Park are so entertaining as Karen and Gretchen Wieners, their Queen Bee — Taylor Louderman’s Regina — suffers a bit by comparison. Her powerful voice is a wonder, but Louderman never really manages to show us a glimmer of what’s underneath Regina’s ice queen exterior.
The true joy of Mean Girls, though, stems from the characters surviving in Regina’s orbit, and diehard fans will be delighted to see that Fey & Co. have made sure all of the movie’s greatest hits get their moment on stage — from “You go, Glenn Coco!” to “She doesn’t even go here!” Before you even make it inside the August Wilson Theatre, there’s a 30 percent chance you’ll already be laughing. B+