BWW Review: MEAN GIRLS Cast Shines Despite Weak Score at SHEA'S BUFFALO Theatre
The brilliant comedian Tina Fey has brought her clique of nasty teenage girls to town to open the First National Tour of her Broadway hit musical, Mean Girls. After the success of the film version, Fey and her husband, composer Jeff Richmond, have added music to the story of teenage angst and meanness. The genre has been well populated over the years, with growing up and adolescent relationships proving to be great fodder for shows like GREASE, BYE, BYE, BIRDIE, HAIRSPRAY, HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL and most recently, THE PROM.
When Cady Heron's family decides to leave Africa for the USA, she must learn how to transition from being a brilliant home schooled student who communes with nature to a teenager who faces the challenges of fitting in at a time when no one really fits in. After being befriended by the outcast gay kids, Janis and Damian, a plan is devised for Cady to interlope on the meanest clique of girls around, aptly nicknamed " the plastics." Cady's struggle lies in whether she should become part of the popular set, mostly for her good looks, or remain with the nerds and join the outcasts.
Danielle Wade is perfectly cast as Cady (having been the standby for the role on Broadway). She transforms seamlessly from awkwardness to a full blown mean girl, all the while aware that her new life and friends are not what she really wants. Her strong vocals proved to be a hit, and truly worthy of the Broadway stage. The 3 plastics are led by head mean girl Regina George, played by the stunning Mariah Rose Faith. Ms. Faith is fear inducing from the outset, but finds humor in her meanness, ala Cruella Deville! Jonalyn Saxer as Karen Smith steals almost every scene she is in with her deadpan stupidity, reminding everyone of a similar brainless beauty you knew in high school. Megan Masako Haley does fine work as Gretchen Weiners, the mean girl who aches to be totally accepted by Regina. Her "What's Wrong with Me" brings a welcome bit of pathos to the overblown drama of teenage life.
Eric Huffman shines with brilliant glee as the the gay and confident Damian Hubbard. With an ear to ear grin, his infectious energy and spot on comedic timing make him a great diversion in this female heavy cast. His sidekick is Janis, played by Mary Kate Morrissey, who is stellar as the artsy student who has a vendetta with Regina, and schemes to take her down. Morrissey also has a powerhouse voice as she leads "I'd Rather Be Me" and lets everyone know that it is okay to be different
Director/Choreographer Casey Nicholaw has became a master of the teenage musical, most notably with his success helming the megahit THE BOOK OF MORMON, and more recently the Broadway show THE PROM. Nicholaw always manages to pace the action briskly, and while his dances are energetic and appropriate for the teens, in Mean Girls his signature style of synchronized arm and hand gestures can border on frenetic. His creativity shines most in the catchy "Wear Do You Belong" as Cady is introduced to each of the lunchroom tables, from Math-letes to Show Choir. When they all dance and stomp with their lunch trays, the magic unfolds.
With lyrics by Nell Benjamin, Mr. Richmond has written a mostly generic pop sounding score that does little to deepen the emotions of 'the plastics'-- all of the young ladies possess strong voices full of belting potential, but the belting grows tiresome and a lack of musical styles among the women makes for an often forgettable score. Richmond does his best when veering towards other styles, most notably in the song and dance number "Stop" led by Damian and the very funny rap number "Do This Thing," delivered brilliantly by Kabir Bery as Kevin.
Ms. Fey's script is full of well placed one liners and slightly ridiculous situations, but does a good job of depicting the difficulties of teen age life. Cell phones and social media play their parts, as one would expect. Scenic design by Scott Pask mostly provided a backdrop for the fascinating video designs of Finn Ross and Adam Young. In collaboration, the designers allowed videos to fill the entire set morphing from high school to gym to auditorium with striking effect. The social media postings fit in perfectly, showing that projections and video design have found their proper place in the theatrical arena. The Tony Award winning costume designer Gregg Barnes clearly enjoyed dressing "the plastics" and provides whimsy with his African animal costumes and some outrageous costumes for a Halloween Party.
The amplified orchestrations by John Clancy are heavy on keyboard, guitar and percussion, which meant many of the lyrics were unheard or unintelligible-- always a risk with a pop score. The large ensemble was packed with super talented kids who took on many roles throughout the evening.
MEAN GIRLS is launching it's tour here in Buffalo after rehearsals in New York followed by weeks of technical rehearsals on the Shea's stage. Ms. Fey was in town and by all appearances enjoyed her time here. Despite some sound issues and inherent weaknesses in the score, the large cast and production staff have presented a highly honed production. And if the Buffalo audience response is any indicator, Mean Girls should do well as it travels around the country.
MEAN GIRLS plays at Shea's Buffalo Theatre through September 27,2019. Visit sheas.org for more information.