7/19/2022 MEAN GIRLS Broadway in Atlanta / Fox Theatre
Physicists have defined four “Universal Forces” that bind and control all space and time: Electromagnetic Force, Strong Nuclear Force, Weak Nuclear Force, and Gravitation. It seems to me that they forgot one – the Force Behind a Teenager’s Need to Be Liked by Their Peers. Like the four traditional forces, it is irresistible, unstoppable, inevitable, and stronger than any physical force.
Which brings me to Tina Fey’s screenplay for the 2004 movie, Mean Girls and her libretto for its 2017 Musical adaptation.
So, just because my own compulsion is to cite obscure works of parody fiction, let me quote the prologue from Ian Doescher’s Much Ado About Mean Girls:
This tale of lasses takes us unto school
With many shrewish girls and boyish asses,
Wherein they make mistakes and play the fool,
And learn hard lessons far beyond their classes.
To this fey story make I introduction –
Which shows us Cady Heron’s youthful age –
Her narrative unfolds in our production
In these few hours upon our simple stage.
I, Prologue-like, your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.
Which, of course, is to say, that Fey’s story works perfectly in any kind of form – movie, stage musical, even Shakespearean Iambic Pentameter. More to the point, while the Much Ado adaptation may be on a “simple stage,” Globe-like in its accoutrements and design, the musical comes to us on a stage filled floor to ceiling with the latest technological innovations and whiz-bangery razzle-dazzle, all in elegant support of the story.
These are characters who live in a world of texts and social media and fast-cut TikTokery, And the staging had durn well best reflect that style. Which it does, to near perfection. (*)
So, if you haven’t seen the movie, let me recap. Cady Heron grew up in Kenya with her scientist parents, home-schooled and wallowing in the glories (and terrors) of the African Biome. They are soon forced to return to Indiana where Cady has to face the even more terrifying High School Biome with its cliques and tribes and apex predators. Quickly making friends with the :outsiders Janis and Damian, she is sent “undercover” to bond with the “Plastics,” those top-of-the-food-chain popular wenches. A social blank slate, it doesn’t take long for her to absorb their shallowness and cruelty, out-plasticking them all.
So, how does this “Fifth Universal Force” manifest itself? Cady (a math genius) dumbs herself down to get the handsome guy in calculus to talk to her. When Regina, apex plastic par perfection, betrays her confidence, Cady resorts to the cruelest possible revenge. And, when there is a conflict between her “popular friends” and her real outsider friends, guess which she chooses?
To start my attempt to “kindly judge” this production (which, TBH, I found outstanding), let me share the obvious – the eye-popping special effects, courtesy of Set Designer Scott Pask, Video Designers Finn Ross and Adam Young, and Lighting Designer Kenneth Posner (skillfully wrangled by Production Stage Manager Emma Ramsay-Saxon and Director Casey Nicholaw). The set is essentially a series of “Video Walls” (backed by a “Video Cyc”) that, depending on the scene, can appear like a traditional set made of flats, a swirl of artistically surreal images, a flurry of texts and IM’s, an open savannah, or really anything within the imagination of the designers. My favorite was a simple scene in an elevated bedroom which has its walls drop away to reveal a seemingly endless universe of stars. I also loved (LOVED!) the final image that reflected the polar opposite of Regina’s “Burn Book.” The overall design effect is as if over a hundred different backdrops were built and lowered (transitions are often configured like new scenes dropping or curtains opening and closing). It is a beautiful design, which, truthfully, called attention to itself WITHOUT distracting from the story unfolding before us.
This is also a memorable contemporary score by Jeff Richmond (composer for NBC’s 30 Rock) and Nell Benjamin (lyricist for Legally Blonde). Songs are alternative funny and moving, always bouncy and energetic, and I loved every number. And, of course, Tina Fey’s libretto and story provides the perfect spine to support the whole animal!
Fortunately, this cast totally sells it. English Bernhardt as Cady skillfully handles the transition from new girl to smart girl to popular girl to mean girl, singing and dancing like the Broadway Diva she will soon become. As Damian and Janis, Eric Huffman and Lindsay Heather Pearce are wonderful narrators and brilliant belt singers and drive the plot even as they rule the stage. As the “Plastics,” Nadina Hassan (Regina), Jasmine Rogers** (Gretchen), and Morgan Ashley Bryant (Karen) defy our preconceptions of the characters and manage to make them their own. Also notable are Lawrence E. Street as Principle Duvall, and April Josephine and Iain Young as ALL the other adult women and men, who are chameleon enough to seem like different actors in each role.
Mean Girls is a wonderful adaptation of a movie I always liked, filled to the rafters with talents on stage and behind the scenes, and a reminder that theatre technology is advancing at warp speed, giving creatives more tools and more opportunities to wow an aging theatre audience (not to mention arousing jealousy in those of us who work in low-budget black box theatres). I loved every minute of it.
Mean Girls is Fetch!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #MeanGirls #BroadwayInAtlanta)
* Okay, admittedly the more complicated the tech, the easier it is for the FUBAR that last night required the Stage Manager to drop the curtain for a few minutes. It is to the production’s credit that (at first) it seemed like a scripted part of the show.
** Ms. Rogers appeared at the Alliance a few years ago in Becoming Nancy
So, what are we to think of all the wenches who came dressed all in pink, even though it was Tuesday? After all, like Shakespeare wrote, “On WEDNESDAYS, we array ourselves in pink!”