Who said high school wasn’t fun, for better or worse? Cliques, conflicts, and a comeuppance or two are some of the components that have made the 2004 Mean Girls film a cultural touchstone. The musical it’s based on — also written by Tina Fey — had its Los Angeles premiere delayed by the pandemic, but the first national tour of Mean Girls is finally here at the Pantages Theatre, where it can be experienced through January 29th. If the opening night on January 5th is any indication, audiences can expect a show that is assuredly worth the wait with hilarious hijinks, snappy one-liners, and an outlet to live vicariously through the protagonist’s rise in popularity and redemption amongst her peers. Suffice it to say, the musical hits many of the same notes the film did and yet carries itself with more presence due to the medium of live theatre.
There’s something to be said for a musical that lives up to the expectations of its cinematic predecessor, and while much of that can be owed to the fervid music/lyrics of Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin, Scott Pask’s fabulously immersive sets (including some of the most breathtaking projections ever seen on stage), Gregg Barnes’ fetching costumes, Josh Marquette’s snazzy wigs, Milagros Medina-Cerdeira’s elegant makeup design, and Kenneth Posner’s star-making lighting, it is Tony Award-winner Casey Nicholaw’s interpretation of the material that takes the musical to a higher plane. As both director and choreographer, Nicholaw raises everyone’s game, like he did with Something Rotten! and Aladdin, to name a few productions he has helmed. Mean Girls wastes no time getting its premise started, and hooks in the audience with an energy that crescendos during all the right moments; and, despite some over-the-top scenes, nothing ever feels false or forced.
The plot follows new girl Cady Heron (pronounced “Catie”) who trades in her homeschooled, outdoorsy, and animal-rife life in Kenya for the suburbs of Chicago. Upon transferring to North Shore High School, Cady suddenly finds herself dismissed by other students until a sympathetic duo — the goth-fashioned Janis and her gay pal Damian — take her under their wing. As a result, the academically proficient Cady finds herself now deftly navigating her school’s social landscape, at the apex of which is the ultra-popular but vapid “Plastics,” comprised of their take-no-prisoners leader Regina George, the meek Gretchen, and the ditzy Karen. Cady successfully ingratiates herself to them, acquiring a newfound status of her own, but must examine if she really subscribes to the philosophy that “more is always better.”
Since debuting in October 2017 in Washington D.C., Mean Girls has figured out all the kinks throughout its two-and-a-half-hour running time, and suitably adapted itself to the current social media age in contrast to the 19-year-old movie. The perniciousness of rumors, and how they can balloon based on out-of-context misconceptions, making victims of the most vulnerable age group, is perhaps the greatest cautionary tale of them all. Eric Huffman’s Damian and Lindsay Heather Pearce’s Janis introduce “A Cautionary Tale” to a raucous applause from the audience who immediately take a shine to them. Both Huffman and Pearce are fantastic at keeping the production focused; not to mention, Huffman earns some of the biggest laughs with his flamboyant comedy and Pearce proves herself as an elite belter, with a keen understanding of the emotional development of her slandered character, in the climactic anthem of “I’d Rather Be Me.”
English Bernhardt delightfully portrays the musical’s central figure, Cady, knowing precisely how to convey an unsureness about where she belongs which slowly evolves into a staunch conviction, albeit one that is misguided (of note is that this Cady is refreshingly different than Lindsay Lohan’s take on the persona). Moreover, Bernhardt takes on some of the show’s most difficult-to-sing numbers head-on, such as “Fearless” with an admirable finesse, alongside softer tunes like “Stupid with Love,” which also spotlights her character’s love interest, Aaron, who is depicted by the talented Adante Carter.
Of course, the main draw of Mean Girls is the ludicrously entertaining “Plastics” (and their “Burn Book” of mean gossip) who are introduced to great fanfare and voluminous pink lighting. Nadina Hassan’s sauntering Regina — who throws her weight around (which becomes more conspicuous due to Kälteen Bars) and manipulates everyone she interacts with — is the girl we all love to hate. Hassan certainly carries herself like a “massive deal” and it’s a blast to watch her on the prowl, boss around her “Plastic” cohorts, and sing authoritatively. Jasmine Rogers’ Gretchen additionally deserves acclaim for emoting what an existential crisis would be like (e.g., “What’s Wrong with Me?”) for someone who is routinely disrespected by her supposed best friend.
It is Morgan Ashley Bryant’s Karen, though, who steals the show. Bryant’s rendering of the dim-witted teen regularly received the biggest reactions on opening night. Not one second of stage time is squandered with Bryant who takes Karen’s vacuousness to another level, highlighted by a side-splitting spiel regarding her character’s two favorite things in the world: Halloween and world peace, or is it the other way around?
Among the supporting cast, Heather Ayers and Lawrence E. Street are the standouts. Ayers is amazing at balancing not one, two, but three distinct personalities: Mrs. Heron, the immature “cool” mom Mrs. George, and Ms. Norbury, Cady’s Calculus teacher and voice of reason — a portrayal Tina Fey would be especially proud of. Street, too, makes the most of his lines as the cynical principal, Mr. Duvall, who specifically has a humorous line about his missing retainer. Last, but not least, the ensemble members are the unsung heroes, leaving a particularly lasting impression with a seamlessly executed dance number, inclusive of percussive hits, using red lunch trays in “Where Do You Belong?”
Ultimately, just like the film version of Mean Girls became a pop-culture phenomenon in the early 2000s, the musical rendition of this coming-of-age story will be a crowd-pleaser for years to come, whether it continues to tour North America or sees another residency on Broadway. Although not everyone may be inclined to relive their high school experience, this is a campus saga worth revisiting time and time again as it empowers and redeems the self-doubting teenager in all of us.
For more information about Mean Girls at the Pantages Theatre (which plays through Sunday, January 29th), please visit broadwayinhollywood.com
Southern California residents can also see Mean Girls at the Civic Theatre in San Diego (2/28/23 – 3/5/23) followed by the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa (3/7/23 – 3/19/23). For further details on tour dates, visit: meangirlsonbroadway.com