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BWW Review: High School Life Gets Un-Cliqued in Tina Fey, Nell Benjamin and Jeff Richmond's MEAN GIRLS

There's a theory, hopefully an accurate one, that the things that make you an outcast in high school are the things that make you awesome as an adult. And maybe that's why scenes in the buoyant new musical Mean Girls are often stolen by the Mathletes, the activist artist, the tap dancers and the kid who decided to attend the Halloween party as sexy Rosa Parks.

BWW Review:  High School Life Gets Un-Cliqued in Tina Fey, Nell Benjamin and Jeff Richmond's MEAN GIRLS
Grey Henson, Barrett Wilbert Weed
and Erika Henningsen (Photo: Joan Marcus)

First time musical theatre bookwriter Tina Fey has adapted her screenplay for the same-named hit 2004 motion picture, which was inspired by Rosalind Wiseman's "Queen Bees and Wannabees," written to help parents guide their daughters through surviving "cliques, gossip, boyfriends and other realities of adolescence."

But the authorial star of the production is Nell Benjamin, whose solid collection of lyrics cleverly utilize contemporary teenage jargon within the highly-crafted confines of perfect rhyming and correct syllable accents. ("I'm the prettiest poison you've ever seen. / I never weigh more than one-fifteen.") Composer Jeff Richmond provides a bouncy collection of catchy, energized melodies in a score that's always focused on advancing the plot and defining the characters.

There may not be any potential pop hits, but in a better world, a song like "Stupid With Love," where the central character expresses her attraction for the cute math whiz who sits in front of her with, "I'm astounded and nonplussed / I am filled with calculust" would be a chart-topper.

That central character is 16-year-old Cady (a terrific turn by Erika Henningsen), who is excited to attend public school for the first time in her life after growing up in Africa and being home-schooled by her biologist parents. (Broadway favorite Kerry Butler plays Cady's mother, but her resounding comic skills are put to better use as a sardonic teacher - the role played by Fey in the film - and a party-animal mom.)

Oblivious to the ways of cliques and the intricacies of social status when she arrives at her suburban Chicago high school (An attempt to ask directions from one classmate is met with a brusque "Unsubscribe!"), Cady is mercifully befriended by "art freak" Janice (deadpan hilarious and fiercely belting Barrett Wilbert Weed) and "almost too gay to function" Damian (Broadway-snazzy Grey Henson, who leads a rousing second act tap number) who, in the first of director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw's smartly staged musical scenes, leads a guided tour of the cafeteria tables where students separate into their own tribes. ("Here's the Sexually Active Band Geeks / I got two words for you: / 'Embouchure' and 'ew.'") Cady gets it because the movement suggests the animal behaviors she grew up observing.

BWW Review:  High School Life Gets Un-Cliqued in Tina Fey, Nell Benjamin and Jeff Richmond's MEAN GIRLS
Ashley Park, Taylor Louderman, Kate Rockwell
and Erika Henningsen (Photo: Joan Marcus)

All the cliques are bonded by their common interests except The Plastics ("They're shiny, fake and hard."), three girls whose union is focused on looking hot and making fun of others.

Queen Bee Regina (cold and predatory Taylor Louderman) is flanked by eager-to-please Gretchen (Ashley Park, who flashes some wild dance moves) and sweet, but air-headed Karen (Kate Rockwell, whose pinpoint comic delivery is reminiscent of Goldie Hawn in her "Laugh-In" days). The three take an interest in the new kid and invite her for a one-week trial of friendship, if she can follow their strict rules of fashion and social superiority. Janice and Damian see it as an opportunity to discover The Plastics' weaknesses with a spy, but when Gretchen and Karen start opening up their vulnerable sides to Cady, she sets out to sabotage Regina's status and take over as the school's hottest blonde.

While Tina Fey is one of the top comedy writers around when it comes to social issues, especially as they affect women, Mean Girls gets off to a shaky start with an overload of gags and quips and not enough emphasis on developing empathy. But the pieces start adding up by act two and her book shifts gears from pleasant to hard-hitting.

Particularly well-presented is the mess Cady creates by hiding her intelligence in order to win over that cute math whiz, Aaron (Kyle Selig, nicely grounding the elevated realism). Before the musical is over, Fey has effectively addressed issues of body-shaming and other forms of emotional bullying, with a quick, but firm suggestion that boys should be taught to control their sexual urges instead blaming girls for being victimized.

With designer Scott Pask's simple set providing multiple screens for video designers Finn Ross and Adam Young to quickly blend into new locations, Nicholaw keeps the proceedings fast and funny.

While Mean Girls should enjoy a healthy Broadway run, it's also exciting to anticipate future high school productions of the show, providing many interesting roles for girls and conveying important messages about accepting others and accepting yourself.

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From This Author Michael Dale

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