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BWW Review: MEAN GIRLS National Tour at Gammage Auditorium

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On stage through November 7th

BWW Review: MEAN GIRLS National Tour at Gammage Auditorium

A tribute to adolescent angst and nerd revenge fantasies, MEAN GIRLS is a satisfying, hilarious musical adaptation of Tina Fey's 2004 comedy. It's an entertaining (if guilty) pleasure propelled by superb video design, skilled comedians all over the stage, and its fun (if disposable) score. The hit musical has resumed its National Tour, re-premiering in Tempe's Gammage Auditorium and the energy in the theatre is palpable. The performers are clearly bursting to perform and the audience is eager to watch.

The plot and dialogue stay aligned with the movie much more than movie-into-musicals tend to. Cady Heron (Danielle Wade) enters North Shore High School after spending her childhood homeschooled in Kenya. She's got little preconception and a lot of naïveté; she's quickly absorbed into the high school ecosystem.

Her first pair of friends are outsiders Janis and Damian (Mary Kate Morrisey and Eric Huffman), but fairly quickly Cady is adopted by a diva trio atop the school hierarchy called "The Plastics". Cady also meets and immediately crushes on Aaron (Adante Carter), who turns out to be ex-boyfriend of the school's "Apex Predator", the alpha of the Plastics, Regina George. After discovering Cady "likes" Aaron, Regina is suddenly interested in him again and reels Aaron back in. Cady's tactics in the battle for Aaron include suppressing her significant talent for math to get his time and attention as her calculus tutor.

Janis, Damian, and Cady make a plan for Cady to infiltrate the Plastics, then topple and embarrass Regina. But after spending some time as one of the cool kids, Cady becomes torn between her outcast friends and her newfound fondness for high school popularity. The plan goes nothing like expected and the school's social system goes into disarray.

MEAN GIRLS is full of advanced math. Not just Cady and Aaron's calculus tutoring sessions and the school's math competition team the "Mathletes''. There's another kind of complex algebra in the material itself. During every new live musical I like, ever, in my life, about 40% the way through Act 1 (or during ANY ballad), my anxious brain detaches and I begin to reverse engineer the success of the show. "What successes from other shows does it recognize and emulate?" The process often generates a one sentence quick pitch version of the show. Something like "It's HELLO, DOLLY! meets ROCKY HORROR" or "It's SWEENEY TODD plus CABARET but funny." "It's EVITA meets FUN HOME as a chamber musical." (Those are made up but if you've got a show for those descriptions, please leave it in the comments.)

I couldn't simplify MEAN GIRLS though. It's a strange equation. The musical numbers themselves are mostly reissues of a cherry-picked Dream Team of the funniest numbers from other musicals. But everything else, the look, the style, the themes, and the story come out to:

If x = [(HAIRSPRAY x LEGALLY BLONDE squared) + the greatest common factor of (HEATHERS + CARRIE) minus the lowest common denominator of (GREASE cubed + BYE, BYE, BIRDIE!)] + the wit and relevance of Tina Fey's writing, then x = MEAN GIRLS.

All of that is before the addition of Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw (THE BOOK OF MORMON, SOMETHING'S ROTTEN) whose self-aware, Broadway-encyclopedic style is perfect for the project. With walls of digital screens and a video design by Finn Ross and Adam Young, Nicholaw moves instantly and in high definition between drastically different locales . It creates popcorn-crunching cinematic transitions. There's no extended orchestral fills covering set changes. The pace is beyond brisk.

I'd love to comment on the lyrics but, as with most shows at Gammage Auditorium, you can hear the vowels perfectly, but not the consonants.

The score, by Jeff Richmond, is a vocal American Ninja Warrior course. Mary Kate Morrissey as Janis leads the way in that department with an impressive rock belt and she's not afraid to use it. Danielle Wade as Cady navigates the score like a pro who knows just where to place every note. Nadina Hassan as Regina takes advantage of the opportunities for humor, sounds great, nails her line readings, but she doesn't bring the total Armageddon of stage presence that the role needs to work as well as it can.

April Josephine as Mrs. Heron, Ms. Norbury, and Mrs. George (the movie roles of Ana Gasteyer, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler) is astonishing in her skill at moving between those characters. She's crafted the perfect mix of her own originality with the film's performances.

The ensemble is a group of quadruple threats adding "funny" to the trio of acting, singing, dancing. The gentlemen who stray over to the female ensemble when musical numbers call for all girls are subtle enough not to upstage, but once you spot them you'll be glad.

MEAN GIRLS is a far from perfect musical. It's too meaningful to be silly. It's not meaningful enough to be taken seriously.

Ultimately, reviewing this show is like being a traffic cop:

If you think you would love a musical version of "Mean Girls" you will absolutely love this show. If you think you'd like a musical version of "Mean Girls", you will definitely like this show. If you don't think you'd love or like a musical version of "Mean Girls", you probably won't.


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