REVIEW: Mean Girls musical delivers immense talent but falls short on substance

The massive franchise spurred by Tina Fey’s 2004 movie drawing attention to bullying and the potential of girl power has lost its dynamic 20 years on

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It’s the franchise that keeps on giving — at least for the creators of Mean Girls, the touring musical remake of Tina Fey’s 2004 hit movie now on stage at the Jubilee Auditorium.

For the audience, however,  it’s less a gift than a quick way to part with $150 you might have spent on something more satisfying.

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Based on Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 book Queen Bees and Wannabes, Fey’s teen comedy — made for $17 million — went on to gross $130 million worldwide. Spurred by its success, book-writer Fey and her musical teammates (Fey’s composer husband Jeff Richmond with lyrics by Nell Benjamin) went on to extend the magic with a 2018 Broadway run. It was nominated for a dozen Tony awards and, according to Variety Magazine, brought in $1.3 million in its first seven previews. 

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Broadway World says Mean Girls grossed nearly $125 million in roughly 830 performances on the Great White Way (it recouped its investment shortly before the pandemic struck in March, 2020). Since then, there have been two American national tours of the musical Mean Girls (with recent stops in Canada) and a new movie starring Jon Hamm based on the musical is set for release Friday. By some measures, the franchise has enjoyed considerable success.

But as a story-telling experience and a musically meaningful event, the stage musical Mean Girls falls short. While the performers on stage opening night couldn’t have jumped any higher — their enthusiasm and talent are not in dispute — the show feels like an endless loop of same-sounding music and frenetic movement. Sure, there are several funny jokes, but they were written for the original movie, now 20 years old.

A couple of updates bring the musical into the present, such as when one of the mean girls complains that she feels like an iPhone without a case.

“Like, I know I’m worth a lot and have a lot of good functions, but at any time I could just shatter,” she says.

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But where the 2004 movie is a thoughtful comedy, drawing attention to bullying and the potential of girl power, the musical rarely achieves that dynamic duo. Overriding themes are subsumed by the relentless pace and shrill tone of the two-and-a-half-hour production. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, here’s the scoop. Cady Heron (Natalie Shaw, with a winning voice and stage presence) enters a suburban Chicago high school at 16 after being home-schooled in Africa, where her parents were researchers. She meets two friends right away who look like a lot of fun — Damian (a charming Ethan Jih-Cook) and Janis (the sharp-edged Alexys Morera). But when Cady is selected for friendship by the Plastics — three popular predators named Regina (Maya Petropoulos), Gretchen (Kristen Amanda Smith) and Karen (Maryrose Brendel) — Damian and Janis urge her to respond in kind so she can report back on the Plastics. There is a secret reason that Janis hates the Plastics; she’s desperate to learn more about their wicked ways in order to seek revenge. 

Mean Girls
From left, Kristen Amanda Smith (Gretchen Wieners), Maya Petropoulos (Regina George), Maryrose Brendel (Karen Smith) and Natalie Shaw (Cady Heron) in Broadway Across Canada’s production of Mean Girls. Photo by Jenny Anderson /Supplied

Meanwhile, Cady falls for Aaron (Joseph Torres) in calculus class, which prompts the song Stupid With Love featuring the memorably clever line, “I’m astounded and nonplussed, I am filled with calcu-lust.” But wait, Aaron is Regina’s ex-boyfriend and therefore off-limits. Cady gnashes her teeth. 

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As Cady gets more entwined in the Plastics’ vacuous and self-centred web, she finds herself changing from an innocent and likable math whiz to a two-faced and manipulative wannabe. There are multiple mean pranks, with retaliations. Cady is eventually ostracized by the entire school. Someone gets hit by a bus. 

Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw keeps things moving at light speed, leaving hardly a breath for reflection. The colours of the set and costumes are saturated and intense. In Where Do You Belong?, one of the show’s biggest numbers of the first act, singers and dancers wave red cafeteria trays like old-school feathered fans. It’s very big. 

But it’s actually one of the musical’s smaller moments — a relatively simple tap dance in the second act during the song Stop — that brings Mean Girls closest to contemporary relevance. The number is about the addictive and obsessive nature of social media and it resonates. But Mean Girls is a long way from Dear Evan Hansen, leaving this audience member feeling overwhelmed and underserved by the spectacle.

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REVIEW

Mean Girls presented by Broadway Across Canada

Book by Tina Fey, music by Jeff Richmond, lyrics by Nell Benjamin, directed by Casey Nicholaw

Where Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, 11455 87 Ave.

When Through January 14

Tickets From $82 at ticketmaster.ca

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