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When I heard that Mean Girls, the musical adaptation of one of my favorite movies of all time, was landing at the Academy of Music as part of its national tour…well, let’s just say I said “grool,” because I got so flustered and thought “great” and “cool” at the same time.
Even though it wasn’t Wednesday, my friend and I ordered a glass of some very pink rosé in celebration before the performance, and I prepared to hear all of my favorite one-liners grace my ears in person. Sadly, this overproduced, video projection-heavy, pink bomb of a musical is not the clever send-up that I know and love so well.
Mean Girls for life
To say that I am a Mean Girls fan would be putting it lightly. When Tina Fey’s masterpiece premiered in movie theaters in 2004, I was finishing up my first year of high school (and a Hot Topic-induced goth phase), and I quickly became obsessed with this refreshing take on the teen experience. Janis Ian became my hero, I celebrated October 3rd, and I slipped in a “that’s why her hair is so big—it’s full of secrets” every chance I got. And Cady Heron’s journey as a nobody attempting to infiltrate the trio of Plastics to topple icy queen Regina George was the arc about identity and self-possession that I desperately needed as a young woman.
Say goodbye to subtlety
But in the musical version, with a book adapted by Tina Fey, the cheeky satire becomes a caricature of itself—not even my undying fandom could pull the pink wool over my eyes. In their attempts to translate the script to a blockbuster stage hit, Fey and her collaborators Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin (30 Rock composer and Legally Blonde, the Musical lyricist) strip the adaptation of the nuance, subtext, and (perhaps worst of all) the feminist humor of the original. What remains is a garish production, courtesy of large-scale projections of social media posts (video by Finn Ross and Adam Young), a lazy design of roving flats and wheeled desks (Scott Pask), razzmatazz choreography (by director Casey Nicholaw), and jokes delivered with such a manic self-consciousness that not even a “You go, Glen Coco” can save the day.
Part of the brilliance of the film is its capturing of subtle high-school cruelty—side-eye glances at an offending garment, whispers behind backs, and of course, the insults that get scribbled on bathroom walls or in the infamous Burn Book. This is difficult to translate into a musical—a form where interior lives are on display and secret thoughts are communicated through belting instead of glances, especially when the writing team doesn’t trust that the audiences will understand or appreciate the material. So we’re left with awkward pauses mid-show for explanations of how Instagram works and lyrics like “My name is Regina George, and I am a massive deal. I don’t care who you are, I don’t care how you feel.” Subtlety is clearly not on the school lunch menu.
Sitting down for my millionth re-watch of the movie and thinking about its stage sister, it occurred to me how accidentally meta Mean Girls the Musical is. She’s a teen trying way too hard to fit in with the other big-budget babes on Broadway. I wish she would just be herself.
What, When, Where
Mean Girls. By Tina Fey, Jeff Richmond, and Nell Benjamin. Directed by Casey Nicholaw. Broadway Philadelphia. Through December 1, 2019, at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St., Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or kimmelcenter.org.
The Academy of Music is a wheelchair-accessible venue. For more information about the accessibility of Kimmel campus venues, call Patron Services at (215) 893-1999 / (215) 875-7633 TTY or email [email protected].
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