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Mean Girls musical avoids being overshadowed by cult classic film

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The amount of times an average American millennial can quote the 2004 movie Mean Girls is limitless. Tina Fey’s cult classic catapulted the careers of actors Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams and Fey herself.

As one of the most prominent movies of the generation, it is not a surprise that Mean Girls was caught in the film adaptation craze that is currently dominating commercial theater. Mean Girls, a new musical with a book adapted by Fey, music by Fey’s Emmy Award-winning husband, Jeff Richmond and lyrics by Nell Benjamin, opened on April 8 at the August Wilson Theater. Fortunately for all the fans of the film, this transition from screen to stage went smoothly.

Protagonist Cady Heron, played by the radiant Erika Henningsen, has been homeschooled her whole life and is used to peaceful solitude. When Cady’s wildlife scientist parents decide to move from Kenya to rural Chicago, she is thrown into the brutal jungle called high school.

After struggling to fit in, Cady eventually befriends the school’s various species: Grey Henson as the delightful Damian Hubbard, who is fierce and infamously “too gay to function,” and Barrett Wilbert Weed as the artistic, anti-cool rebel, Janis Sarkisian. Cady also develops a crush on Aaron Samuels, a handsome, but naive heartthrob played by the charming Kyle Selig.

Just like in any high school, the cool kids are at the top of the social hierarchy. As the show’s tagline warns, “Don’t be fooled by the pink.”

The Plastics, a modern-day version of the Pink Ladies, is the school’s holy trio led by Taylor Louderman as apex predator Regina George.

Regina is a manipulative queen bee whose cold mind and intimidating persona would be a perfect match for House of Cards’ ruthless characters.

She is constantly accompanied by her retinue of the self-doubting fashionista Gretchen Wieners, played by Ashley Park, and empty-headed, lovable doll Karen Smith, enticingly brought to life by Kate Rockwell. Regina instantly smells danger in newcomer Cady and invites her to join The Plastics, starting the drama that gets the whole school gossiping.

As Cady is torn between real and fake friends, she struggles to stay true to herself. She clandestinely loves math but is afraid to join the school’s math team because it is widely acknowledged as “social suicide.”

It is not until Ms. Norbury, played by the hilarious Kerry Butler — who also appropriately portrays Cady’s and Regina’s mothers — pushes Cady to realize the clichéd truth of many chick flicks that being yourself is always superior to being somebody else.

The beloved characters, some of whom have become household names, benefit from the adaptation as they become more layered and relatable than they are in the film. Fey, whose comedic writing talent has been overdue for a Broadway appearance, not only successfully transforms the story into a staged production but also modernizes it with current references and pressing issues.

The show updates Mean Girls for the #MeToo era as an unapologetic showcase of glass-shattering and independent young women who learn that having each other’s back and loving oneself is more rewarding than squeezing into an extra small dress or playing dumb to impress a boy.

With several empowering references and even occasional jibes aimed at the current U.S. president, the staged version meticulously omits multiple original quotes and storylines in order to reflect how much the world has changed since The Plastics wore pink on Wednesdays for the first time.

Under the direction of Casey Nicholaw, Fey’s story of female empowerment transforms into a musical celebration of youth. Known for his work on blockbuster spectacles such as Aladdin, Something Rotten! and The Book of Mormon, Nicholaw knew exactly how to incorporate choreography into every scene to create a visual narrative that never appeared out of place.

Instant crowd-pleasers include a full tap dance sequence featuring angst-ridden teenage girls led by the vivacious Grey in a Judy Garland t-shirt and a High School Musical-meets-Newsies dance break with lunch trays in the cafeteria.

Richmond and Benjamin compose a vibrant score that matches the tastes of the younger generations without becoming too gimmicky or forced.

Dominated by sugary harmonies and infused with glam rock, bubble pop and Disney-like melodies, the score allows the leads to demonstrate the full range of their voices, especially those of Henningsen, Louderman and Park. The score varies from party anthem “Whose House Is This?” to the heartbreaking duet between Cady and Aaron “More Is Better.”

The stunning video projections of the famous Burn Book full of lame, nasty comments, designed by Finn Ross and Adam Young, deserves a special standing ovation.

In what promises to be a rather disappointing awards season, a significant number of new musicals this year are adaptations of films and television series. Yet, Mean Girls managed to stay strong on its own and not be overshadowed by the legacy of the original film.

Fey and Richmond’s 2018 musical reimagines itself as a fresh homage to the modern youth who communicate with emojis and view themselves and the world around them with respect. Gretchen Wieners can be satisfied — 14 years after the original film premiered, fetch finally happened.

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