Amid the sea of musicals adapted from film, some work better than others. And in the case of “Mean Girls”, now on tour at Miller Auditorium in Kalamazoo, based on the cult classic 2004 film written by Tina Fey, the musical in many ways improves upon the film.
Cleverly updated, the musical, with book by Tina Fey with music by Jeff Richmond and lyrics by Nell Benjamin, doesn’t stray far from the original tale that focuses on transfer student Cady (Natalie Shaw), who’s moved to Chicago’s North Shore from Kenya, a previously home-schooled teen thrown to the hungry, clique-y wolves of an American high school.
The goth kids (Ethan Jih-Cook as the “almost-too-gay-to-function” Damian and Alexys Morera as jaded artist Janis), take her under their wing, but she falls in with “the plastics”, the mean, popular girls, including awkward Gretchen (Kristen Amanda Smith), ridiculously air-headed Karen (MaryRose Brendel), and Regina George (Maya Petropolous), whom Cady accurately identifies as the “apex predator” of the high school’s jungle-like habitat. Cady joins “the plastics”, partially under the guise of undermining Regina, but she ends up alienating her true friends and ultimately learns her lesson.
Putting all of this together with song and dance softens the original meanness. Regina remains a wonderful villain, but it’s hard to truly despise her when she’s singing and dancing so well. All of the plastics, actually, fully get to be divas here with their impressive scream singing that likely would sound better in a space with better acoustics than Miller Auditorium. Each mean girl gets her anthem, from Gretchen’s vulnerable “What’s Wrong With Me?” that makes her much more likable than in the film to Cady’s “Fearless” (Natalie Shaw is an especially gifted singer)” to Karen’s hilarious “Sexy” to the ultimate anthem finale “I See Stars.”
And while the dancing is spectacular, with clever original choreography from Casey Nicholaw (and tour choreography from John McInnis) that makes use of everything from red lunch trays to desks and chairs on wheels to trampolines in couches, the numbers are too many, too fast, too furious for the audience—much less the performers—to even take a breath, much less fully take them in. By far the best of the lot is “Stop”, a delightful tap number led by Damian, the character who truly gets his due in the musical—the gay kid who not only likes musicals but leads one!—in which he implores Cady to “do better and stop . . . eat a cracker and stop” before posting something regrettable on social media.
There were no selfies and social media to speak of in 2004, so this is a major update of the musical as well as an important message that keeps the story relevant. And the way it’s handled is but one of many smart, snarky bits that adds to the classic lines that carry over from the film such as the plastics’ declaration “We wear pink on Wednesdays” and Gretchen’s “fetch”.
They’re still awfully mean, those girls, and there’s still a moral to this story, and it sings more deliberately and proudly of girl power than the film did. Even the mom character is more likable and inspires real compassion. That’s growth reflective of feminism’s real cultural momentum over the last two decades.
Though the music is catchy, it is also largely forgettable and the numbers are downright relentless at a certain point in this two-and-a-half hour show; however, the dancing is delightful, the characters strong, and as long as girls—mean and otherwise—just wanna have fun, there will be an audience for this likable musical.