BWW Review: Amy Heckerling Pens New Lyrics To 90s Hits To Bring CLUELESS To The Musical Stage
The inherent problem with trying to craft a book musical around a score made of previously-existing hit songs is that the lyrics rarely match the character/situation specifics enough to keep the story moving. So film director/screenwriter Amy Heckerling tries finagling around that challenge in the new musical based on her 1995 coming-of-age romantic comedy, CLUELESS.
Not only does she write the book for her Clinton-era riff on Jane Austen's 1815 novel, "Emma," where the genteel English title character is reimagined as Cher, a privileged Beverly Hills teen, but she also performs extensive rewrites on some of the decades top pop hits in order to create a newish score.
So Aqua's "(I'm a) Barbie Girl" gets revamped for ensemble members bragging "I'm a Valley Girl," and Joan Osborne's soulful "(What If God Was) One of Us?" gets fully reworked so a character can ponder, "What if Cher didn't have a trust?"
A couple dozen more like "Beautiful Life," "U Can't Touch This," "Bye, Bye, Bye," "I Don't Want To Wait" and "My Lovin' (Never Gonna Get It)" are added to the mix, with songs serving as punch lines and lyric twists earning a few laughs. Heckerling doesn't seem especially concerned with pure rhyming and accurate syllable accents, but then that's not the musical language of the characters she's writing for.
Dove Cameron's Cher makes for an appealingly chipper host for the two-act musical, narrating much of the story directly to the audience.
Having lost her mom during infancy due to a freak liposuction accident, Cher has grown up luxuriously spoiled by her ace litigator dad (Chris Hoch, playing all the male adult roles).
"Daddy's so good he gets $500 an hour to fight with people. But he fights with me for free because I'm his daughter."
If Cher has learned anything from her father, it's the value of negotiating skills and she's become an expert at getting teachers to raise her report card grades. But when debate teacher Mr. Hall doesn't seem to want to budge from her C- grade, Cher deduces he' be a softer touch with a happier love life, so she plays matchmaker for him and his awkward colleague Miss Geist (Megan Sokora plays all the adult women).
Despite her selfish motives, Cher feels really good about having helped people find happiness and decides to take on the challenge of giving tragically unhip new student Tai (Ephie Aardema) a makeover and, despite her mutual attraction with slacker Travis (Will Connolly), fix her up with handsome and snobby Elton (Brett Thiele).
Meanwhile, there are episodes involving the tempestuous relationship between Cher's chic best friend, Dionne (Zurin Villanueva), and her hip-hop styled boyfriend Murray (Gilbert L. Bailey II) as well as scenes involving the socially conscious Josh (Dave Thomas Brown), Cher's dad's son with his ex-wife, who disapproves of her superficial lifestyle.
It's a lot of plot to jam into a show, especially when the second act introduces hip new student Christian (Justin Mortelliti) as Cher's new crush. After building a solid-enough foundation, Heckerling's script flies all over the place without focus.
Fortunately, the production is guided by the strong hand of director Kristin Hanggi, best known for giving a sharp, satirical tone to ROCK OF AGES, helping to make that jukebox musical written around 80s hair band anthems and power ballads way better than it should have been. She doesn't work miracles here, but Hanggi keeps the proceedings light and flippant and her ROCK OF AGES choreographer Kelly Devine has the talented ensemble dancing period styles with high energy and comic finesse.
Much of CLUELESS is enjoyable, for sure, and the cast dives in admirably. But as accomplished as the author is in the film world, the show can use a librettist who's a bit less clueless about how musicals work.