Danielle Wade, Megan Masako Haley, Nadina Hassan, & Mary Kate Morrison in Mean Girls. Photo: Broadway Across America.
Book by Tina Fey
Music by Jeff Richmond, lyrics by Nell Benjamin
Directed & choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, Jonalyn Saxer,
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
I remember the Mean Girls movie and how it established Lindsay Lohan as a star. Turns out it was actually the launch of a more satisfying career for Rachel McAdams. Wow, how long ago does that seem now!
The adaptation into stage musical feels an easy transition. The plot follows Cady Heron (Danielle Wade), who grew up on an African savanna as the child of missionaries and is thrown for a loop by the high school social politics of her new home in suburban Illinois. She is confronted by “The Plastics”, a trio of mean girls led by the phony but ruthless Regina George (Nadina Hassan). Her sycophants are the tragically insecure Gretchen Weiners (Megan Masako Haley) and seemingly moronic Karen Smith (Jonalyn Saxer). Although Cady first makes friends with the nearly outcast Damien Hubbard (DeShawn Bowens) and Janis Sarkisian (Mary Kate Morrisey), she is soon in thick with Regina’s crew at Damien and Janis’s urging.
Everyone can relate to the peer pressure and casual cruelty of high school, but what is most interesting about Fey’s story is how easily a decent girl can flip and how much self-loathing and insecurity are at the root of the desire to tear down others, how it can seem like the only way to gain power over our fears.
Nell Benjamin made her reputation with Legally Blonde, the Musical, and is a natural fit for this material, contributing sharp and witty lyrics that match the tone of Tina Fey’s book, and Casey Nicholaw has exactly the flair for the razzle-dazzle required to make this show burst from the stage with so much kinetic energy as to leave you breathless. Every set piece is on wheels that allows it to move within a musical number and easily expedite the instantaneous scene changes that are only possible through the brilliant use of digital/video projections (by Finn Ross & Adam Young) thrown across a multi-level backdrop. This is a visually stunning, beautifully designed show, with sets by Scott Pask, costumes by Gregg Barnes, and lighting by Kenneth Posner.
The performances were impressive, with all of the principles in possession of strong, powerful voices, great facility as dancers, and a knack for physical comedy. Danielle Wade adroitly charted Cady’s innocence and journey into the darker side, but the skills of Nadina Hassan, Megan Masako Haley, Jonalyn Saxer, and Mary Kate Morrisey were on par with Wade, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine that they could all swap roles on any given night, although Saxer’s dim bulb comedy was a special delight.
There were problems understanding the lyrics sung by Hassan and Morrisey that I chalked up to poor enunciation. Hassan’s pitch-perfect unctuous voice was perfect for the character, yet seemed at the root of her issues, but Morrisey sharpened her delivery after intermission, and brought the house down with “I’d Rather Be Me”, a showcase for the power and breadth of her voice.
My other quibble is that Janis and Damien were both presented as so attractive, perhaps too good-looking and charming to fully qualify as social outcasts. This is especially true when DeShawn Bowens leads a dazzling tap number in act two. And as I noted above, it would only require little more than a change of costume for Morrisey to step into the role of Cady. Hardly the goth/emo figure of the movie.
I was pleased to see the inclusion in the ensemble of one person whose body type did not match the stereotype for musical theatre chorus members. She killed it all night long, the equal or better of her colleagues, and her presence made me wish that the casting had been adventurous enough to fill the stage with a fuller range of body types that would better represent the pain and awkwardness of teenage life.
The music quite simply rocked in the fashion of many of the musicals introduced in the last 20 years or so; the offspring of the rock musical innovations of the early 1970s and was played by a core six-member band traveling with the tour that was augmented by Louisville musicians Hunt Butler, Jeremiah True, Clark Hunt, Chris Fortner, Alexander Williams, Paul Reich, Terry O’Mahoney, Grace Baugh-Bennett, and Nancy Harris.
Mean Girls is as good a stage entertainment as you will find this season, quickly paced, inventivley staged, and endlessly funny, but however vapid it may seem at times, the message at its core is an important one, although it was better illustrated in the original movie: the examination, however humorously, of the human propensity for selfishness and mean-spiritedness. It is within each and every one of us unless we choose differently.
March 22 -27, 2022
Broadway in Louisville
Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.